Immigrant Crusade Enlists Few Blacks
Najee Ali, an African American activist, tries to turn out for as many civil rights rallies as he can. But on the day that hundreds of thousands of Latinos marched through downtown Los Angeles for immigrant rights, he had no idea it was happening until he turned on the TV.
“They didn’t call us; they didn’t need to call us,” Ali said of organizers of the march last month during a recent dialogue between blacks and Latinos about immigration. “Once I saw the half million, I felt fear, in a sense, that [blacks] might be marginalized in the future when it comes to jobs and political empowerment.”
Ali’s fears underscore the complex sentiments many African Americans feel about the surging number of immigrants who have transformed their neighborhoods and schools, the workplace and the political arena.
The majority of blacks sided with Latinos and Asians in supporting bilingual education and opposing a 1994 statewide initiative that, had it not been overturned in court, would have denied benefits to illegal immigrants. Yet many say they also feel an acute sense of encroachment and at times competition from the newcomers.
So far, African American voices have not been featured in the national debate over immigration reform, even though some believe they have the most at stake.
“In this era of mass immigration, no group has benefited less or been harmed more than the African American population,” said Vernon M. Briggs Jr., a Cornell University labor economist who has studied the effect of immigration on blacks for more than three decades.
In a 2004 book, “The Impact of Immigration on African Americans,” Briggs and other scholars charted myriad effects, including lower wages for less skilled and less educated blacks and their substantial displacement from the job market, with many dropping out of the labor pool entirely. In education, they found that providing remedial resources for immigrant students cut into resources for native-born students and that immigrants modestly displaced blacks from affirmative action programs.
But they also found some positive effects: The larger number of low-skilled workers, for instance, helped push better-educated blacks up the occupational ladder, enhancing their managerial opportunities.
Briggs said the effect is strong because both African Americans and Latinos tend to cluster in the same urban areas and lower-skilled labor markets.
The transformation of Central Los Angeles neighborhoods from majority black to majority Latino has stirred complex feelings of pride for Randy Jurado Ertll, 33, a Latino educational consultant, and a sense of pain and loss for Kimela Santifer-Berry, 48, an African American woman studying for her license as a real estate agent.
Ertll, an American citizen of Salvadoran descent, moved into the largely black area around Hoover and 41st streets in 1978 and recalls black gang members robbing immigrant children, including himself, of their lunch money and bus passes. By third grade, however, Ertll’s best friend was black, as were most of the customers at his aunt’s market and mother’s beauty salon.
Today, as the neighborhood has become dominated by Salvadorans and other Central Americans, Ertll said he wanted to bridge the gap between Latinos and blacks and to encourage “power sharing.”
“I think the lack of jobs is what creates so much despair and hopelessness,” he said. “Elected officials have to find a way to create jobs for both African Americans and Latinos in South-Central L.A.”
Santifer-Berry, who voted for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, says she also would like to see reduced tensions between the two groups. But she said it bothers her that so many of her neighbors cannot speak English. In her job last year at an importexport firm, she said, most of the drivers who picked up and delivered goods spoke only Spanish.
“Why should we have to learn Spanish when this is America?” she asked.
Santifer-Berry agrees with Ertll that jobs are a major flash point. To illustrate, she recently took a visitor through her neighborhood near Overhill Drive and Slauson Avenue, just north of Inglewood. She stopped at one restaurant and retail outlet after another to count the number of black employees.
“Five customers, all black. Four workers, all Latino,” she said at one fried chicken restaurant. “Now, is that right?”
She went on to an African American friend’s home on Avalon Boulevard and 74th Street, west of Florence. Regina Atkins, 56, shared her family’s tales of hardship.
Atkins said her 17-year-old daughter has unsuccessfully applied for at least eight jobs in the last year at fast-food restaurants and failed to land any of them, even though most of her Latino friends have found work. Her son, Atkins said, applied for a job at a paper goods store but was told by the black owner that he had to speak Spanish.
Not all African Americans feel pinched by immigrant labor. Kevin Hooks, a 33-year-old senior vice president of public relations and marketing at the Axis Agency, a multicultural unit of communications management firm Weber Shandwick in Los Angeles, said he and other black men of his generation saw their fathers sweating at manual labor six days a week and believe they have stepped up from such work.
“My dad preached to me: “Don’t work at hard labor. Go to school and get a good job,” Hooks said in a lively discussion about immigration at Tolliver’s Barber Shop on Florence Avenue during a recent afternoon. “So people of my generation see success as sitting behind a desk and not sweating. We’re not battling for those low-end jobs.”
For those who are, however, research backs up their suspicions that mass immigration has made their lives tougher.
The book on immigration and African Americans, for instance, features studies by Briggs and others who argue that blacks have historically enjoyed greater economic opportunities when immigration was restricted, causing employers to hire more women and elderly and young people. Growing immigrant labor pools have allowed employers to drive down wages for blacks and have correlated with black withdrawal from the labor market, the researchers found.
Ethnic employment networks favoring group members also were frequently cited as a barrier to jobs for blacks.
In Los Angeles, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently obtained consent decrees for damages on behalf of black job applicants who filed discrimination complaints against the Clougherty Packing Co.'s Farmer John processing plant, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp., and Zenith Insurance Co. after alleging that Latino supervisors at both firms failed to hire them.
The Farmer John supervisor, for instance, passed over blacks with meatpacking experience in favor of Latinos, who made up the entire workforce of about 1,000 employees, according to Anna Park, a lawyer in the Los Angeles regional office of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The firm has agreed to pay $110,000 in damages to seven black plaintiffs and to set up training and monitoring programs.
In January, Zenith agreed to pay $180,000 to claimants and meet hiring goals of at least 18.3% African Americans in clerical positions in its Woodland Hills office.
Park said it was a “natural human inclination” to hire people of similar backgrounds. She also said employers of all ethnicities needed training to understand that such practices violate federal laws.
“We have to make sure that people who hold power positions and have hiring authority are trained to make decisions not on what is comfortable, but what is right in compliance with federal law,” Park said.
Maria Elena Durazo, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor’s interim executive secretary-treasurer, said ethnic networks were one reason for the decline in the number of black workers and the rise of Latino workers in the local hotel industry. Black workers made up 10% of Los Angeles hotel workers in 1970 and 6% today, according to Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. During the same period, Latino membership increased from 21% to 74% as the number of white hotel workers also declined.
Like Park, Durazo said the solution was to demand that employers actively recruit and train more African Americans. Two years ago, Local 11 won contractual guarantees from some hotels to do so; similar demands for black recruitment and hiring will be pressed nationwide this year during contract negotiations in a dozen cities involving 60,000 hotel workers who are union members, she said.
“Hiring immigrants was one way in which wages and benefits could be held down,” Durazo said. “Now immigrants are proud of making these jobs better jobs, and we believe that African Americans have to be given opportunities.”
Beyond jobs, some blacks also lament the way immigration has reshaped schools.
Thirty years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District student population was 24% black and 32% Latino. Today, one in 10 students is black, and seven in 10 are Latino. Blacks have all but disappeared on some inner-city campuses, including Jefferson and Fremont high schools, which had been predominantly black for generations.
The transition has sparked tension and sporadic violence between black and Latino students and has stoked resentment among black parents, many of whom reflect on their own childhoods, when their neighborhoods and schools were a comfortable mix of blacks and English-speaking Latinos.
Now, they complain that activities from playground games to PTA meetings are conducted in Spanish. Their children say they feel isolated on campuses by immigrant students’ cliques, ignored by Spanish-speaking office workers and abandoned by teachers who seem to focus most of their attention on helping immigrant classmates.
The campus tensions are exacerbated by outside pressures -- cultural differences, neighborhood overcrowding and the stress of living in impoverished areas.
“The kids are reflecting larger economic issues, and lots of time the tone is set by adults,” Sylvia Rousseau, a former region superintendent for Los Angeles Unified who now teaches at USC, said after racial fighting last year at Jefferson High School. “The black [parents] say ‘They’re taking my job.’ The Latinos feel used by low wages, difficult jobs. The kids absorb this ... then turn their anger on each other.”
For Atkins and Santifer-Berry, the effect of immigration is also keenly felt in less tangible ways: the disappearance of the neighborhood barbecues, card games, potlucks and jaunts to the local club that used to occur every weekend when all of their neighbors were black and enjoyed similar food, music and entertainment.
Today, only four black families are left on Atkins’ street. The local market posts most of the signs in Spanish and the old music clubs have been bought out by Latino merchants, she said.
“You feel like a stranger in your own land,” Santifer-Berry said. “It hurts.”
Times staff writer Sandy Banks contributed to this report.