Workers Vanguard No. 871
26 May 2006
Against Capitalists' Divide-and-Rule
Immigrant Rights and Black Liberation
The recent wave of demonstrations for immigrant rights, which were predominantly made up of Latino working people, underscores the growing weight and combativity of immigrant labor in the U.S. The protests have also touched off a virulent chauvinist backlash spearheaded by such right-wing media types as CNNs Lou Dobbs and politicians like California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrbacher. Such racist reactionaries are even attempting to incite sections of the black population against immigrants. Thus Dobbs, railing against the liberals who have dubbed the protests a new civil rights movement, cynically declaims that blacks were not illegal aliens.
It is clear that there are real divisions among American blacks over the fight for immigrant rights. Many black working people see immigrants as successfully competing for scarce jobs while further depressing the wages of low-paid workers. It is a fact that capitalism brings into the working class new sources of cheaper labor, principally immigrants from poorer, less developed countries who have few rights and are deemed more disposable in times of economic contraction. The economic pressures resulting from increased immigration bear down especially on black people, historically segregated at the bottom of U.S. society, and also the lower levels of white workers. The resulting divisions within the working class can only be countered by militant struggle by the labor movement to defend the interests of all workers.
A number of black liberals express a certain degree of resentment that the immigrant rights protests are detracting attention from the horrific conditions and brutal oppression of the ghettoized black masses. Reflecting this sentiment, one prominent black commentator in Los Angeles wrote, This is what vexes blacks most about immigration, even the most progressive and pro-immigration among us: the idea that people from somewhere else are ultimately accorded more of a place and a function in this country than we ever have and probably ever will be (Los Angeles Times, 5 April).
Along similar lines, in a 2 May online article, L.A.-based black publicists Earl Ofari Hutchinson and Jasmyne A. Cannick criticize mainstream Latino organizations for their narrowly based ethnic politics. In particular, they point to the mission statement of the Mexican American Political Association, one of the chief organizers of the recent protests, which states that the organization has been, and is, dedicated to the constitutional and democratic principle of political freedom and representation for the Mexican and Hispanic people of the United States of America. They comment, There is no mention of blacks, poor whites or even other immigrant groups, just Latinos.
More generally, Hutchinson and Cannick argue:
Latinos who want to change the mindset of blacks on illegal immigrants rights must make a visible and concerted effort to reach out to blacks and not just on immigrant rights issues but on issues that are important to blacks as well. Just as they vigorously pound on Congress, the Bush Administration, employers, and the American people to make jobs and justice the watchwords for dispossessed immigrants, they must make jobs and justice the watchword for dispossessed poor blacks too. This is the right and indeed the only way to build a firm and lasting relationship between blacks and immigrants rights groups.
Hutchinson and Cannicks criticisms of the bourgeois liberal organizers of the protests for not raising any demands speaking to the oppressed black populace are entirely justified. However, their solution is just another version of liberal constituency politics, centered on the Democratic Party.
Capitalism and Black Oppression
In opposition to such bourgeois pressure politics, as Marxists we understand that the only way to overcome the divide between immigrant and native-born, and between black and white, will be the united class struggle of the multiracial proletariat against the common capitalist enemy and its profit system. This perspective calls for forging a new union leadership committed to the political independence of the working class and the development of a multiracial revolutionary workers party. Such a party would fight for quality, integrated housing and schools and for free, quality health care for all. It would fight for full citizenship rights and for the unionization of vulnerable immigrant laborers. It would advance demands for a sliding scale of wages and hours to distribute available jobs to everyone who wants them with no loss in pay, challenging the capitalist system that requires a reservoir of the unemployed to keep wages down. To achieve full employment and social equality requires the overthrow of the capitalist order through socialist revolution and the construction of a rational, planned economy based on collectivized property.
Central to the struggle for the emancipation of labor in the U.S. is the fight for black liberation. The special oppression of black people as a race-color caste is rooted in centuries of chattel slavery and subsequent segregation. Indeed, black oppression is rooted in the very foundation of racist American capitalism. The racist atrocity in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina revealed the harsh reality of black oppression to the whole world.
While newly arrived plebeian immigrants in their vast majority begin at the bottom of U.S. society, light-skinned immigrants have historically been able to advance up the economic ladder. The color bar is the American social measuring stick, ranging from blacks on the bottom to whites on the top. The social standing and prospects of all people of color are largely determined by this measuring stick, with dark-skinned people tending toward the black end and the lighter-skinned toward the white end. This is clearly indicated by the extent of intermarriage across racial and ethnic lines: The rate of intermarriage between non-Hispanic whites and Latinos or Asians is far higher than between whites and blacks.
The fight against black oppression is a strategic question of the American socialist revolution. There will be no social revolution in this country without the united struggle of black, white and immigrant workers led by their multiracial vanguard party, just as there is no other road to eliminating the oppression of black people other than the victorious conquest of power by the U.S. proletariat. The growth of the immigrant workforce is actually a potential boon for the cause of black liberation, by infusing the American labor movement with traditions of a higher level of class struggle in Mexico and other Third World countries. This is the key factor behind the transformation of Los Angeles from a largely open-shop city to Strike City U.S.A.
L.A. Rulers Foment Black-Latino Conflict
The Los Angeles area is a textbook example of the capitalists divide-and-rule policy. In 1992, Latinos joined blacks in protesting the racist acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King. Shaken by the multiracial nature of the ghetto upheavals, which posed the possibility of integrated class struggle, the bourgeois rulers—abetted by black and Latino nationalist demagogues—worked to pit the black and Latino poor against each other in a scramble over the crumbs from the Rebuild L.A. project. Of course, the bourgeoisie had no intention of rebuilding the decaying ghettos and barrios.
Los Angeles has witnessed growing antagonisms between blacks and Latinos, as once predominantly black neighborhoods have been increasingly populated by Latino immigrants over the past couple of decades. Contributing to such ethnic conflicts is the fact that L.A. has one of the highest poverty rates—about 22 percent—and the largest homeless population in the country.
Over the last two years, sharp clashes between black and Latino students have taken place at nearly a dozen L.A. County schools. Predictably, the response of school and police authorities has been increased repression, prompting one Jefferson High School student to remark, They treat us like were in prison. These antagonisms have reverberated in the prisons and jails. In February, 2,000 inmates at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic rioted for four hours after a group of Latinos attacked black prisoners with prison furniture. Fighting also occurred at the Mens Central Jail in downtown L.A. and the Pitchess Detention Center. In one case, prison authorities responded to the fighting by forcing more than 100 inmates at an L.A. County jail to strip naked, leaving them with only blankets to cover themselves.
The anti-immigrant Minutemen vigilantes, who mainly appeal to poorer whites susceptible to racist demagogy, were recently joined in L.A. by a small, reactionary black outfit called the Crispus Attucks Brigade. Its leader, Ted Hayes, rants: Illegal immigration is the greatest threat to African Americans since slavery! Hayes was echoed by Theodore J. Smith III, chairman of the African American Caucus of the California Democratic Party, who wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles Times (28 April), Activist Ted Hayes is right—illegal immigration has lowered wages and pushed African Americans out of the building trades and service jobs that were our opportunity to have the American dream. Many blacks have seen right through these divisive attempts, and some have actively protested against the Minutemen. When Hayes recently staged a photo-op in L.A.s Leimert Park embracing Minutemen honchos, his followers were outnumbered by black protesters who equated the Confederate-flag-wielding Minutemen with the KKK.
Immigrant-bashing and anti-black racism always go hand in hand. The passage in 1994 of Californias notorious, anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which sought to deny public services to illegal aliens and was supported by approximately half of black voters, served to pave the way for the passage two years later of Prop. 209, which eliminated affirmative action programs in hiring and education, with devastating impact on blacks in particular.
Whipping up tensions between Latinos and blacks especially serves the L.A. rulers in their drive against the resurgent labor movement in the city, particularly the powerful unions that are largely Latino and black, such as transit and longshore. Internally, the power of labor is shackled by the class-collaborationist trade-union bureaucracy. Maria Elena Durazo, head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, recently alibied the racist hotel bosses by claiming that ethnic networks were the reason for the decline in the number of black workers and the increasing numbers of Latino workers in the local hotel industry. Durazos solution is to plead with the employers to recruit and train more black people, citing UNITE HERE Local 11s contract guarantees from some hotels to do so. Instead of looking to the racist bosses, there should be union-run hiring halls carrying out an equitable distribution of available work, with union-run programs to hire more blacks, other minorities and women.
The mass unemployment of black youth, who are lucky to get a minimum-wage job at McDonalds, is not caused by the influx of immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere. The pro-capitalist labor tops, who have accepted large cuts in union jobs, wages and benefits, bear major responsibility for the dire situation of workers and minorities. The past few decades have seen the disappearance of millions of stable, well-paying jobs as a result of deindustrialization and de-unionization in capitalist America. For example, industries such as auto and steel once were the economic bedrock of black working-class communities in Detroit, Chicago and other Midwestern cities. The labor force in these industries has been slashed, non-union operations have proliferated (especially in the South).
We fight for a workers government which would rip the means of production out of the hands of the capitalists and put the wealth produced by working people to the service of all. A planned socialist economy would rebuild this society, providing the necessary material basis for productive jobs and a decent living standard for all, native-born and immigrant alike.