Magazine article The American Prospect

African Americans and Immigrants: The Common Good: Are Foreigners "Taking Americans' Jobs"? or Are Employers Once Again Exploiting Cheap Labor and Vulnerable People?

Magazine article The American Prospect

African Americans and Immigrants: The Common Good: Are Foreigners "Taking Americans' Jobs"? or Are Employers Once Again Exploiting Cheap Labor and Vulnerable People?

Article excerpt

America's current heartburn over immigration policy has focused on, among other things, the impact of immigrants on African American workers and other low-wage, uneducated workers. This superficial analysis is summed up by the cry, "They are taking our jobs."

Are they? Or is this just the latest chapter in America's never-ending search for cheap labor? It takes no anti-capitalist conspiracy theorist to conclude that along with individual freedoms, another founding principle was employers' freedom to search for labor (preferably free or cheap) both here and abroad. How else to explain this country's continued sanction of slavery well after England and other civilized countries had outlawed it? How was it, as Douglas Blackmon explains in his superb new book, The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II, that Southern capitalists could use the legal system for decades after the Civil War to ensure a steady supply of essentially free labor?

America willingly opened its doors to the Chinese and Irish in the mid-1800s, until xenophobic and economic pressures grew too great. How interesting is it that the last great wave of immigration, from Eastern and Southern European countries from 1890 to 1920, occurred at the same time that organized labor was taking its first steps to restructure the workplace so that American workers could also benefit from capitalism? In short, our immigration policy has been as much about labor needs, as defined by employers, as it has been about deciding "who gets to be an American."

The unemployment rate among African Americans has been persistently twice the rate of unemployment among white Americans. Even more alarming is the "employment-to-population ratio," which measures the percentage of the total population in a certain age group holding jobs. In 2003 in certain urban communities like New York and Los Angeles, only 51.8 percent of African American males between ages 16 and 65 held jobs, as compared to 75.7 percent of others.

How is that possible when those same communities, as an example, have hundreds of thousands of immigrants both legal and illegal with higher labor-participation rates than African Americans have? Perhaps, something else is going on. It may be that employers prefer "other" workers for "other reasons."

Research exploring the restructuring of the economy, the weakening of trade unionism, employer preferences, and racial bias suggest some answers. Researchers Roger Waldinger and Michael Lichter concluded that immigrant workers were seen as more subservient and compliant than native-born workers and thus, more willing to take on low-wage, difficult jobs with no benefits.

One wonders why such preferences do not constitute discriminatory bias. How can we determine if we need more foreign workers because "there are some jobs that Americans won't do?" Pay decent wages, with decent working conditions--and there are very few jobs Americans won't do. Conversely, if the jobs being offered are not the "good jobs" of the past that created the great blue-collar middle class, why would the native-born, be they European American, African American, or Hispanic American, want such jobs?

Today's immigration debate has led to the perception and sometimes the reality that immigrants are taking the jobs of some African Americans and others. Rarely is asked the question: Why are we fighting over "bad jobs"? …

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