Outside the Home Depot on Ponce de Leon Avenue, no one engages in theoretical debates about whether illegal immigrants are competing for jobs with Americans.
Here, the competition unfolds whenever a truck pulls into the parking lot, its driver looking for day laborers.
On any given day, about half of the 30 or so men waiting to pounce on those trucks are Latinos, many of them undocumented. But the rest are African American men like Sam Gibbs. One chilly afternoon, Gibbs, 47, sprinted like a teenager toward a red pickup, hawking his services to two black men inside.
“Take a brother with you!” Gibbs pleaded. “I’m from South Carolina!” He had beaten out a sizable group of Latinos who soon surrounded the truck.
“Hold on guys,” the driver announced. “I need a drywall finisher.” He said he would pay $9 an hour.
Gibbs backed away. The Latinos began negotiating with the driver, who hired one of them for $12 an hour.
“Drywall finisher -- that’s a specialty,” Gibbs muttered as he walked back to his spot on the sidewalk near a Dunkin’ Donuts. “Plus, he was only paying $9 an hour.”
In the Deep South, like the rest of the nation, undocumented Latinos have come to dominate many of the corners and parking lots where day laborers gather. But this region is different because of the high percentage of Americans who still compete with Latino immigrants for such jobs. Although U.S.-born workers make up 7% of the day-labor pool nationwide, they account for nearly 20% in the South, according to a 2006 UCLA study.
Indeed, long before the Southern labor landscape was transformed by a tidal surge of Latin American immigrants, blacks and whites populated the “catch-out corners” in Southern communities, whistling and waving after employers in hopes of “catching out on a job” and pocketing a few tax-free dollars.
Many of the black workers who gather on Ponce de Leon today say that they cannot find regular work. Some have been laid off and some have criminal records or addictions. Others are supplementing a primary paycheck, or prefer to work under the radar, earning wages that are difficult to track. One man said he was trying to avoid court-mandated child support payments that he could not afford.
The black laborers speak of their Latino competitors with a mix of resentment, resignation and tolerance. Many reckon that tougher immigration laws would mean more work for them. But they also suspect that some old, familiar prejudices are energizing the anti-illegal-immigrant movement.
Frustration over the Latino presence was palpable in the loud, strained voice of Anthony Curtis, 42, a burly man in an orange parka. “They pick up the majority of the work,” he said, motioning toward the Spanish-speaking men huddled nearby. “They dominate the corner.”
But when Curtis was asked whether he supported a crackdown on illegal immigration, his voice softened. “That’s a hard thing to say,” he said. “You say that, you’re on a racial-type mind-set. All I’m looking for is equal opportunity.”
Ponce de Leon Avenue cuts through the heart of Atlanta, connecting the central city to the sprawling eastern suburbs. It looms large in local culture and history: The day laborers stand where the city’s segregated baseball teams, the Atlanta Crackers and the Atlanta Black Crackers, once played home games.
The street winds through neighborhoods of wealth and want. The Home Depot is in a Midtown Atlanta shopping center with a Whole Foods market and a sushi restaurant. Up the street, the scruffy Clermont Motor Hotel lures some of the workers with rates of $40 a night.
The unregulated labor market runs on familiar principles. Jobs tend to go to low bidders, to workers with valued skills and to workers who are hungry enough to get to the trucks first. But racial stereotypes also exert an influence. Everyone agrees that it’s better to be brown than to be black.
Jose Diaz, 38, an illegal immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico, said he regularly saw employers shun African American workers. “They don’t want to pick them up because they don’t like to work,” he said.
“It’s 100% true that we work harder than they do,” said Victor Reyes, 45, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, confident that his comments in Spanish would go unnoticed by the black workers within earshot.
It was a cold Tuesday morning. Reyes and the other men were spread out on a long sidewalk bordering the vast shopping mall complex. Blacks mingled with blacks, Latinos with Latinos -- a social segregation that is mostly the result of the language barrier.
Technically, the mall property is off-limits to the workers. They are under close watch by security guards who call police if anyone is caught loitering without the intent to shop. But if an employer and laborer can strike a deal fast enough, they can usually leave together without fear of a penalty.
Over the course of four mornings, many employers, though not all, were seen picking Latinos over blacks. They would not comment.
Watching the proceedings but declining to participate was a 57-year-old black man who called himself Jack Smith -- a necessary pseudonym, he said, because he was in violation of his parole. Since his release from state prison in January, Smith had worked off and on renovating houses for a small-scale developer, but he said his record tended to scare off many employers. For the last six months he had been out on the corner with a bag full of tools, extra socks, cigarettes and toilet paper.
Unlike many of the other workers, Smith refused to chase the trucks. He preferred to wait for an employer to seek him out -- although on slow days he would hail the odd truck passing on the street.
“If it was meant for me to have,” he said, “God’s going to bring it to me.”
Trust in providence was not the only thing holding Smith back. He said it also seemed like a bad idea to run toward a stranger’s vehicle with a pack of black men in the Deep South. “You get 12 to 14 black guys running up on a car,” he said, “some white lady in there is going to be panicked.”
Other black workers have devised rules to help them find work -- or simply survive. Steve Jackson, 27, said he always tried to keep his hands in his pockets. Taking them in and out might cause police to suspect he was a drug dealer. The headquarters of the Atlanta Police Department, he noted, is just across the street.
Hiram Evans, 44, said it was important to speak politely and carefully to employers.
“If you talk all alley -- if you can’t talk right -- if your vocabulary messed up, they’ll probably be like, ‘Oh, he’s been to prison,’ ” he said.
A 48-year-old Jamaican who gave his name as Valentine said the Caribbean lilt in his voice helped to differentiate him from the American-born black men. When employers heard it, he said, they sometimes traded negative stereotypes for positive ones.
“They know, ‘He going to work,’ ” he said, laughing. “They know Jamaicans can keep three jobs, you know?”
The men agreed that the cards were stacked against them because so many employers came to hire Latinos. Some took offense at the idea that Latinos were more industrious. Others said it was probably true.
Lester Jackson noted that the going rate for an unskilled job out here was $10 an hour. “For a Mexican, that’s a big deal,” he said. “You only make $3 a week in Mexico. . . . They’re going to work 10 times harder than an American will.”
Jackson, 53, said the hustle of the Latino workers reminded him of his father’s attitude when opportunities for blacks began to expand after the demise of Jim Crow laws. His father, he said, was thrilled to have the chance to get a decent-paying job, even if it wasn’t a particularly glamorous one.
The men said there were times when it helped to be a black American. Some employers refused to hire illegal immigrants, and some jobs required a native speaker’s command of English.
Though the black workers were resentful of illegal immigrants, they also felt sorry for them. They said they knew first-hand how a day laborer could be injured, stiffed by the boss or left stranded in the boondocks with no bus service. They knew that most illegal immigrants would not complain the way black Americans would because they feared deportation.
“There’s nothing they can do,” Smith said. “They can’t play no defense. They can’t call the police.”
The next morning at 8, Smith and 10 other men were trudging up the sidewalk toward a nearby McDonald’s. They had been rounded up by an ex-felon named James Rowe. A black employer had asked Rowe, 53, to assemble a team of workers to unload a truck full of Christmas trees at a nearby lot.
Rowe, who is black, chose eight black men and two whites for the job -- but no Latinos. He wasn’t acting out of racism, he said, but out of fairness.
“I recognize most of these Mexicans out here,” he said. “And they done worked all this week.”
The men he chose, Rowe said, “need it more right now.”
They were picked up in the McDonald’s parking lot by Keith Johnson, an African American who owns a landscaping company. Johnson was helping another man set up a tree lot on the grounds of a middle school. Johnson said that he hires men of all races on Ponce de Leon when he needs extra labor. But he said he tended to favor black workers.
“It’s basically out of loyalty,” he said. “I’m a black business owner, and I know how it is out there. It’s hard for me to get to the front of the line just because I’m black, you know?”
The men stood in the cold morning air next to an 18-wheeler piled 15 feet high with bound Frazier firs, receiving their simple instructions. They worked quickly, unloading 715 trees in two hours.
By 10:30 a.m., Rowe and Smith were back on Ponce de Leon, each with $30. Smith seemed invigorated by the money and the work. He smiled at a Latino whose face he had come to recognize over the months.
“Hey, que pasa, amigo?” he said. The man nodded back pleasantly.
The Christmas tree job would be the last Rowe and Smith would land for the day. At lunchtime, a man came by and hired a few workers, but he pointed only to Latinos.
Rowe had been living for a few days at the Clermont, but tonight he was short on cash. Smith, who was flopping in one of the empty houses he had remodeled, told Rowe he could stay with him for the night.
When the two men got to the house, a turn-of-the-century brick bungalow in Atlanta’s West End, Smith proudly showed off the work he had done on the developer’s behalf -- the painted porch, the new gutters and the new tile work in the bathroom.
Rowe shot Smith a look of feigned incredulity, and spoke like a man who believed black people could never be responsible for such quality work.
“Now you sure you didn’t have a crew of Mexicans out here?” he said, smiling.