Immigrants and Race in the US: Are Class-Based Alliances Possible?


Mass migration poses particular challenges and unique opportunities for the US Left. On the one hand, immigrants are being pitted against the native-born, especially African Americans, causing increased competition and conflict among low-wage workers. This process threatens to further fragment an already divided working class. On the other hand, new immigrants are rapidly changing the country’s ethnic make-up, creating opportunities to address structural racism and economic exploitation. In the current context of increasing inequalities and a faltering capitalist system, these developments provide an opening for radical politics.

Current trends could turn out to be either opportune or disastrous. The outcome depends largely on how immigrants line up with African-Americans, and vice versa. As race continues to affect group dynamics, so racism continues to complicate immigrant political incorporation and the development of class consciousness. Because blacks suffer particularly invidious forms of oppression, attacking racism is integral to building the kind of multiracial working-class political organization that is essential to revolutionary social transformation. Without anti-racism, there can be no socialism. Harry Blackmun, although not a socialist, recognized the underlying truth: “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way.”2

We begin by highlighting how the contemporary context differs from that which faced earlier immigrants, paying particular attention to the intervening struggles for civil rights and black power. We then explore factors that impede and factors that facilitate working-class multiracial alliances. We conclude by presenting a set of proposals that aim to mitigate conflict and build coalition.

A Nation of Immigrants?

According to the Bureau of the Census, the US will become a nation of ethnic and racial “minorities” within a matter of years. Since the 1970s, the overwhelming majority of immigrants have been so-called “people of color” – from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa. Four states and the District of Columbia already have a larger share of minorities than non-minorities: Hawaii (75%), District of Columbia (68%), New Mexico (58%), California (57%) and Texas (52%).3 Hundreds of cities and counties are also comprised of “majority minority” populations.

Projections of such an outcome are not new; they were common at the turn of the 20th century and led to new laws in the 1920s which greatly reduced immigration and sharply restricted it to Western Europeans. Anti-immigrant hysteria took many forms, including anxiety that the newcomers would not assimilate because they spoke different languages, practiced different religions, had different customs, were not white in the taxonomy of the day, and possessed divided loyalties. While such depictions have a familiar ring today, turn-of-the-20th-century immigrants eventually “assimilated” – became white and thus American – over time.4

Present-day immigrants face hardships in some ways greater than those of their predecessors. First, they tend to be darker-skinned and hence more readily targeted for discrimination.5 Second, today’s immigrants and their children face a very different economic environment. In the past, manufacturing provided a ladder of mobility for many first- and second-generation immigrants (even as they leap-frogged over African-Americans), but recent economic restructuring and the loss of unionized manufacturing jobs has narrowed the options for newer arrivals.6 Third, the sheer volume of immigration has increased as a result of globalization, as free-trade policies have undercut the livelihoods of more and more third-world people. Fourth, reductions in government spending on domestic programs have contributed to increased competition among Latinos, Asians, native-born blacks, and low- and middle-income whites for public and private resources in employment, housing, education, health, and welfare. These contextual factors affect ethnic and race relations, and will shape American political development for years to come.7

The Immigrant Moment: Race and Class Redux

Today ethnic and racial minorities, many of whom are immigrants, make up the majority of the working class.8 Recent changes in the US political economy (and globally) have contributed to growing inequalities, particularly between people of color and whites. Today, of 300 million inhabitants of the US, about 36 million are poor and another 54 million are near poor, and most of these are people of color. Thus, one out of three Americans is poor, working-class, and “colored.”9 Furthermore, inequalities among racial groups are increasingly severe. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, for example, the median net worth of “Hispanic” households in 2002 was only 9% of that of “non-Hispanic White” households; the median net worth of “Non-Hispanic Black” households was lower still.10

Race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably, yet they are different. To simply substitute one for the other obscures their distinct meanings. Race is most often associated with color; however, understanding race merely in terms of skin color masks the real issues (Steinberg 2007; Hattam 2007). Following Allen (1997), we contend that race was created by ruling groups in early America who used racial laws to divide the working class. Race, therefore, is an instrument of social control. Race contributes to the oppression of the working class by subordinating black people. White workers, especially European ethnics, have been allowed to rise socially above blacks, but at severe cost to their own collective advancement.

By contrast, ethnicity typically refers to a common genealogy or ancestry and a group’s distinctive culture, language, and practices. Historically, many immigrant groups from Europe – including Irish, Italians, Jews, and Greeks – were not initially perceived as white. But as ethnic groups, rather than racial groups per se, they were able to become “white” – gain rights and privileges – and “assimilate” over time. This process has never been an option for blacks. In fact, it is anti-black racism that is the structuring ideology of race relations and social inequity in the US. Whiteness is fluid and has maintained itself by the absorption of previously excluded groups. Today, the flip side of the “browning of America” could end up being the “yellowing of whiteness” (Yancy 2003).

Mass immigration poses challenges for racial justice advocates. Immigration could further reinforce racial polarization by pitting newcomers against the native-born, especially African-Americans. During the 1980s, riots broke out four times in black neighborhoods in Cuban-dominated Miami (provoked each time by the killing of a black man by Latino or white police officers). In the early 1990s, three days of looting and shooting in Washington D.C. were sparked by a police shooting of a Salvadoran immigrant. In Brooklyn, violence flared between African-Americans and a Korean greengrocer, and also with Hasidic Jews. The 1992 Los Angeles riots of mostly African-Americans – but also Latinos – resulted in the destruction of approximately 4,000 businesses (30% were Latino-owned though a greater percentage of Korean-owned shops were targeted). More recently, racially motivated hate crimes have ravaged dozens of cities and towns across the US, particularly in new immigrant destinations. Tensions are visceral between immigrants from the Caribbean and native-born African-Americans, between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and South Americans, Chinese and Koreans, and so on.11 On top of this, anti-immigrant legislation has led to an increasing number of government-led raids on immigrants, with mass detention and deportation becoming de facto policy. Immigrants are one of the fastest growing segments of the US prison population and are the largest group prosecuted for federal crimes.12 At the same time, we witness a further rollback of affirmative action policy and the erosion of anti-discrimination legislation and enforcement.

Evolving race relations are affecting patterns of minority political representation and will likely continue to do so as second-generation immigrants reach voting age. Electoral districts in states and locales that were designed to be “majority minority” are increasingly comprised of new immigrants who compete with other minority factions for seats and votes. Similarly, the scarcity of jobs that pay a living wage pits native-born workers against the foreign born, particularly those with low levels of skill and education. And, as some immigrants intermarry and assimilate, the racial hierarchy can be kept intact or reproduced anew.13

In some instances, newcomers distance themselves from African-Americans in order to avoid what some scholars have called “downward assimilation.”14 In their classic work on “segmented assimilation” Portes and Zhou (1993) describe the process whereby some immigrant groups – particularly members of the second generation – benefit from their parents’ relatively higher “human” and “social” capital and experience to gain a more favorable reception in the US, thus experiencing upward mobility. On the other hand, they argue, where immigrant groups do not have access to resources and cannot build social and/or economic capital, the second generation often experiences “downward assimilation.” In some instances, poverty, inadequate services, and exposure to native-born blacks for second-generation immigrants can “contaminate” their life chances.15

Others have criticized this analysis as patently racist. The emphasis on such stereotypical fears fails to acknowledge, for example, how some second-generation Hispanic youth in New York City have embraced Black culture and have leveraged this choice to achieve upward mobility (Kazinitz et. al. 2002). Similarly, hybrid cultural formations, such as Reggaeton (a mixture of dancehall reggae, hip-hop, and Puerto Rican culture), show a melding of cultural exposures that defies “fixedness.” On the other hand, however, as Steinberg argues,

the extension of race beyond the binary of black and white, the admission of permutations in the middle, has deflected attention away from the unique and unresolved problems of race qua African-Americans. The result is that the nation congratulates itself on its “diversity” and celebrates its “multiculturalism,” while the problems of African-Americans continue to fester from neglect. (2005: 51)16

As many have noted, an ethnic group’s position in the white social order and its prospects for social mobility are not individually determined. That is, how those at the lower end of the white privilege scale perceive themselves, or how they behave, may be less significant to their racial privilege status than broadly held perceptions. For example, European immigrants that came to 19th-century America could not “become white” by simply adopting the mainstream habits. They had to be given opportunities to obtain rights and social privileges that come with being white and seize them, forging pathways to white-only occupational, educational, residential, and other settings that had previously excluded them (Allen 1997). In other words, the relative position of the racial and ethnic group reflects the dominant group’s exclusionary or inclusionary exercise of political, economic, and cultural power (powell 2007), as well as the specific power subordinate groups possess to resist or fight such domination. Structural racism, or a changing but persistent racial hierarchy (Aspen 2004), complicates the process of immigrant political incorporation and has blunted working class alliances (Allen 1997; powell 2007).17 To be sure, there is no single response to structural racism by immigrants. Nevertheless, all immigrants – in every region and in every sector of the economy – are forced to navigate the fault line of race. If immigrants and their advocates can do this by exposing and confronting structural inequality – particularly racism – we all will benefit. But how is this possible?

Blacks, Immigrants, and Class Inequality

Racial dynamics are central to current debates about newcomers, particularly within the African-American community. Nowhere is this more evident than in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Muhammad 2006). Many immigrants – particularly Latinos – were hired to “rebuild” New Orleans. Today, newcomers and their offspring comprise a growing proportion of the population of this once majority African-American city. The contours of the “new” New Orleans look more like a playground for the white middle and upper classes than a home for blacks and people of color. This is a classic case of divide and re-conquer.

Although many immigrants share similar economic and social conditions with African-Americans, alliances do not naturally occur. They must be organized. Common class interests may exist but unless commonalities coalesce, differences will continue to divide. As history shows, race consciousness can impede class consciousness. The current anti-immigrant climate provides fertile ground for both black and white workers to displace anxieties about rising costs, declining wages, and an uncertain future onto immigrants. Sadly, the “presumed alliance” among working-class people of color has not been axiomatic (Vaca 2003). As Marx might argue, the class “in itself” has not yet become a class “for itself.”

For one thing, a persistent racial hierarchy affects immigrant incorporation. As many have pointed out, new immigrants are transforming – without erasing – racial hierarchies that characterize social structures, workplaces, neighborhoods, public agencies, and legislative bodies. As Roberto Lovato argues perceptively, a new racial and political landscape is emerging in the US (particularly in the Deep South) in which Latinos’ subordinate status bears more than a passing resemblance to that of African-Americans who lived under Jim Crow:

Call it Juan Crow: the matrix of laws, social customs, economic institutions and symbolic systems enabling the physical and psychic isolation needed to control and exploit undocumented immigrants…. Along with the almost daily arrests, raids and home invasions by federal, state and other authorities, newly resurgent civilian groups like the Ku Klux Klan, in addition to more than 144 new ‘nativist extremist’ groups and 300 anti-immigrant organizations born in the past three years, mostly based in the South, are harassing immigrants as a way to grow their ranks. (Lovato 2008)

Lovato points out that in Georgia alone, more than 500,000 undocumented immigrants live in a state of terror, fearing every time they go out and having to think more than twice before going to a hospital or health clinic because of laws requiring them to prove their legal status before they can receive state benefits.

Capital has not only helped create Juan Crow but also benefits from it. Companies employing undocumented immigrants have profited mightily from their low wages, especially in poultry, meatpacking, rugs, and tourism. The second- and third-class status of immigrant workers fits alongside the “most visible legacy of Jim Crow – Georgia’s massive and growing population of black prisoners.… By keeping down wages of the undocumented and documented workforce, Juan Crow doesn’t just pit undocumented Latino workers against black and white workers. It also makes possible every investor’s dream of merging Third World wages with First World amenities” (ibid.).

The widening class divide also breaks largely along racial lines. Although there is disagreement among economists about the overall economic impact of immigrants, there is a growing consensus that large-scale immigration heightens competition over low-wage jobs, particularly among people of color.18 Immigrants serve as scapegoats for problems exacerbated by the current economic contraction. The rise in unemployment among blacks, for example, is due principally to the decline in manufacturing, cuts in public employment, and business attacks on unions (Schmitt 2008). Displacement by immigrants has been just a single factor in a situation whose primary causes – capitalism, greedy and unscrupulous employers, structural racism, economic restructuring, and neoliberal economic and public policy – are too easily ignored.

The need to reframe who are enemies and who are allies is urgent. Immigrants need to know that they owe a great debt to civil rights activists. One year after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law (July 2, 1964) and just months after the Voting Rights Act became law (August 6, 1965), the Hart-Celler Act of October 1965 (formally titled the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965) prohibited using race or nationality as criteria for immigration and naturalization. This abolished the nation-of-origin restrictions that had effectively limited immigration to Western Europeans since 1924.19 This opening to immigrants from third-world countries was in addition to the civil rights movement’s other victories for equal rights, in the form of anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action policy.

Immigrant progress cannot be made on the backs of blacks (or workers). Otherwise, we will end up reinforcing the subjugation of people of color by the white ruling class. Fighting for immigrant rights means also fighting against the corporate capitalist class. Business and Bush have been “pro-immigrant” for good reasons – they want a particular brand of immigrant policy that provides a pool of cheap, abundant and pliable labor. Of course, they also seek high-tech workers, teachers, physicians, and nurses, among others, who fit in the racial and class division of labor above blacks and other native workers. Clearly, workers of all stripes have an interest in fighting against such policies. Thus, we argue, immigrant rights without worker rights is a formula for disaster.20

Similarly, blacks have a stake in the emancipation of immigrants, particularly the undocumented. As David Bacon (2007: 66) observes, “inequality is the most important product of US immigration policy, and a conscious one.” Essentially, US immigration policy is based on capital’s need for a reserve army of cheap labor. Predictably, it reproduces inequalities and spreads the pain. Immigrants – especially the undocumented – do not have equal rights. As with practices rooted in slavery and the Black Codes, making someone “illegal” justifies exclusion and subordination. Weekly government raids on the undocumented, resulting in mass incarceration and deportations, assure that the state of terror remains unbroken (Chacon & Davis 2006). Equity as a goal in itself can foster common ground, as can the goal of secure jobs at a living wage, and rights in workplaces and communities. Successful struggles for these goals require political unity among diverse constituencies.

Building Bridges

The plight of immigrants and their fight for equal rights has gained a sympathetic response on the part of many African Americans. Surveys show that blacks are less likely than whites to say that immigration should be cut back and are less likely to hold negative views of immigrants (even while blacks are slightly more likely than whites to believe immigrants take jobs from Americans).21 Twice as many blacks as whites think immigrants should be eligible for government-provided social services; 79% of blacks –as opposed to about half of whites – think immigrants should attend public schools; and 47% of blacks – as opposed to only 33% of whites – believe immigrants should be able to stay in the US. Similarly, most African-Americans believe that their interests and immigrants’ interests are linked.22 A recent survey of immigrants and minorities in New York City showed that blacks and immigrants (particularly of color) expressed similar concerns and ranked issues of importance in close proximity to each other.23 Blacks, however, are more likely than whites to say they or a family member have lost a job, or not been granted a job, because an employer hired an immigrant worker (22% and 14%, respectively); and blacks are more likely than whites to feel that immigrants take jobs away from American citizens rather than take jobs Americans don’t want (34% and 25%, respectively).24 Similarly, some black leaders have expressed a growing unease about immigrants or have remained silent.25

A number of African-American groups and leaders – from radical groups such as TransAfrica Forum and the Black Radical Congress to mainstrean organizations such as ACORN, Rainbow Push, the NAACP, and the Urban League – voiced opposition to proposed federal anti-immigration legislation (HR 4437) and expressed support for immigrants rights. Some groups are making concerted efforts to work more closely with immigrant rights organizations. Similarly, immigrant rights leaders and organizations, which have employed the languge of the civil rights movement in demostrations, are attempting to forge working relationships with black organizations, labor unions, and public officials. A central message they articulate is that immigrants are not responsible for the divisive use to which they are put by the capitalist class. Jesse Jackson has responded evoking the similar conditions of immigrants and African-Americans: “Few complain when African-Americans and immigrants are deprived of their rights and relegated to enslavement or cheap labor. But when we become too numerous, begin to demand our right to fair wages, human rights or citizenship, suddenly we are denounced as ‘undermining the economy.’”26 Such leaders hailed the immigrant-led protests of 2006 as a natural sequel to the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Some African-Americans and progressives have argued for a “neo-rainbow coalition” (Glover & Fletcher 2005), which would be led by people of color and organized around a class-based, anti-racist agenda for equal rights and social justice.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Just when African-Americans seemed to have gained a modicum of political influence – both as elected officials and as holders of government jobs – their overall condition began to slip backward (Mollenkopf & Logan 2003; Thompson 2006). While many factors are at work in depressing real wages, the influx of new immigrants working in low-wage sectors is surely one. Studies have found that immigrants adversely affect low-wage native-born Americans, especially those with low skill and education levels who tend to be concentrated in cities with large black populations (Waldinger 1986; Bean et al. 1993; Bacon 2007). In addition, examination of particular industries reveals that some employers discriminate against blacks in unskilled work sites, preferring to hire immigrants (Kerschenman & Necherman 1991; Waldinger 1989). This research confirms the perception of many native blacks that they are losing jobs to immigrant workers (Diamond 1998; Borjas 2005). Some studies find that employers rely on informal networks when looking for new hires in immigrant-dominated sectors of the economy. Use of immigrant networks reduces the employer’s recruitment costs at the same time that it effectively excludes African-Americans and other non-immigrants from the hiring process (Waldinger 1993; 1996). As Steinberg notes, “employers who make their hiring decisions on the basis of what group a person belongs to, rather than on individual merits, are engaged in patent acts of prejudice” (2005: 47).

In addition, a rising nativism has allowed some to exploit tensions and divisions between immigrants and blacks, fostering conflict rather than cooperation. Thus, pundits and candidates, particularly associated with the Republican Party, have put forth African American spokespeople to denounce immigrants, claiming that they take jobs away from blacks, create a drain on public expenditures, and contribute to crime. Candidates like Obama who attempt to downplay race in order to reduce conflict may be able to build broad political support across constituencies in the short run, but because race is never far below the surface, opponents can use race to stoke fears and exploit competition to drive a wedge between voting blocs, as the 2008 presidential campaign has shown. Multiracial political alliances are fragile and problematic. Coalition partners sometimes wrongfully compromise issues crucial to African-American empowerment, such as affirmative action and the struggle for reparations. How many times do African-Americans have to hear that their time must wait in the name of “unity,” political feasibility, or expediency?

Opportunities for Multiracial Working Class Alliances27

New immigrants afford unique opportunities to foster progressive politics. As in the past, previously excluded groups have gained access to power principally through political struggle. They fought their way into the polity through political agitation, whether within the major parties or via third parties or through social movements and independent organizations. Ultimately, they needed the support of other sectors in society to win social, economic and political rights. One thing is certain: attainment of increased political clout by immigrants and African-Americans as an organized bloc is integral to achieving radical social change.

In some cases, commonalities have formed the basis for multiracial alliances – within and between pan-ethnic groups (Latinos, Asians) as well as between African-Americans and progressive whites – to wage and win significant battles, such as by increasing minimum and living wages, fighting mass incarceration, enforcing equal rights protections, improving public education and healthcare, and scoring electoral victories. Such coalitions have involved immigrant and civil rights groups, worker centers, labor unions, community-based organizations, policy groups, and even some progressive public officials.28 The growing political strength of the immigrant rights movement – which filled the streets with millions of marchers in dozens of cities across the US in 2006 – holds promise for building anti-racist, class-based, multiracial alliances. Numerous community-based and civil rights organizations that represent and provide service to newcomers have sprouted up and mobilized to fight for a broad range of social and economic rights. Some successful and innovative coalitional efforts suggest possible strategies and policy goals for a multiracial politics (Widener 2008).

David Bacon tells of one such effort, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA). Born in 2001, the MIRA is an exemplary model that brings together the growing number of Latino immigrant workers with black workers, recognizing the importance of addressing racism as a necessary precondition to achieve social justice for all. In the 1990s, casino construction began in Mississippi. As a result, Latino immigrants, along with Southeast Asians, moved into the state to work in the construction industry and also sought employment in northern Mississippi’s traditionally black-dominated catfish and chicken plants. Several years later, labor leaders, in conjunction with church and civil rights activists, joined forces to combat problems that both groups were facing. “In Mississippi, African American political leaders and immigrant organizers favor [the slogan]…. ‘Blacks plus immigrants plus unions equals power’” (Bacon 2008). A key to the success of the MIRA has been its emphasis on direct action: grassroots union organizing taking place on the shop floor and pushing progressive policies through the state legislature, such as no longer requiring parental social security numbers to enroll students in public schools. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, however, the MIRA switched its focus to reconstruction. Racial and political equity are the MIRA’s basic goals. “Finding common ground among immigrants, African Americans, and labor is the pillar of the MIRA’s long-term strategy.” As one of their members, Jaribu Hill, argues, “we have to talk about racism. The union focuses on the contract, but skin color issues are also on the table…. We are coming together like a marriage, working across our divides” (ibid.).

The Rev. Joseph Lowery was a lieutenant to Martin Luther King Jr. and now leads the Georgia Coalition for a People’s Agenda. He sees the millions who marched in Atlanta and across the country during 2006 as a sign that significant change is in the making. “We’ve globalized money, we’ve globalized trade and commerce, but we haven’t globalized fairness toward work and labor. The solution to the ‘problem’ of immigration and other problems is globalization of justice” (quoted in Lovato 2008). Of the relationship between American blacks and Latino immigrants, Lowery says: “There are many differences between our experience and that of immigrant Latinos – but there is a family resemblance between Jim Crow and what is being experienced by immigrants. Both met economic oppression. Both met racial and ethnic hostility. But the most important thing to remember is that, though we may have come over on different ships, we’re all in the same damn boat now” (ibid.).

Interestingly, immigrant rights advocates have employed the language and tactics of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in struggles for equal rights and social justice. In 2003, for example, immigrant rights advocates and several labor unions (UNITE/HERE) organized an Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride – where hundreds of immigrants and their allies went from California to Washington D.C. and then New York City – which was inspired and modeled on the Freedom Rides of the 1960s civil rights movement. During the spring of 2006, millions of immigrants and their allies filled the streets in dozens of cities across the United States to protest proposed federal legislation (HR 4437) that would have criminalized the undocumented (and those who provide aid to them), and equally important, to demand equal rights and treatment. Since then, May Day has taken on greater visibility as a day marked by protesters who explicitly link immigrant rights, civil rights and anti-imperialism. Progressives of all stripes – including African-Americans – have taken stands and marched in solidarity with activists for immigrant rights to demand good jobs, social benefits, and a halt racial profiling and police brutality. For many, the link between advocating immigrant rights and attacking racial discrimination, white supremacy, and class privilege is clear.29 In the process, the civil rights framework is being transformed into a broader human rights framework.

Although there is nothing new about calls for multiracial cooperation and solidarity, the failure to create and sustain such a common front may end up being the Achilles heel that could again thwart gains for immigrants, African-Americans and working people more generally. “Universal” or “class-based” solutions must directly address racial disparities and discrimination if they are to be truly universal or advance the working class as a whole, let alone people of color. As Rinku Sen, the editor of Colorlines magazine and a long-time racial justice advocate, put it: “Policies designed without racial justice goals can actually deepen the divide, while creating the illusion that they’ve taken care of everyone.”30 Thus, racial justice goals must be at the forefront of coalition building. Because inequalities extend beyond class, we are not all in the “same boat.” Nevertheless, by taking up racial injustice as part of the struggle for full inclusion, including via reparations to reverse past exclusion, we might build a boat capable of moving us forward. There are signs that this is beginning to happen.31

Clearly, no one movement can resolve or obliterate the multiple oppressions experienced by any group. Nevertheless, the immigrant rights movement can learn lessons from other movements. Although the immigrant rights movement rightly focuses on the particular challenges facing immigrants, it cannot achieve its goals without also confronting the problem of racism. Immigrant activists need to make the attack on racism a central piece of the fight for human rights.

A Better Deal

Far-reaching proposals are needed to increase the political strength of the working class. For example, a full employment jobs program (similar to the New Deal Era Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration) set at living wages to (re)build infrastructure (schools, hospitals, transit, and the environment) – coupled with a guaranteed income – could provide the basis to organize class-based multiracial alliances and help mitigate tensions among ethnic and racial groups, particularly in the low-wage sector. Such proposals could be linked to winning amnesty and greater rights for immigrants – as Representative Sheila Jackson Lee proposed in 2005 – and would ensure that the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the US do not compete through a back door. Some of these ideas are making their way onto the agendas of labor unions, community groups, and policy organizations, and manifesting on the ground in multiracial political formations.32

How can the American Left help resolve the social and economic conflict between immigrants and blacks and advance a progressive agenda? Many proposals have been put forth, ranging from open borders, to increasing worker rights, to engaging in direct action. While each of them makes a contribution in its own right, they are incomplete. Each is a necessary but insufficient response to the economic, political, and racial inequities experienced by immigrants and blacks. If we heed the call by some to focus attention on provided jobs at a living wage for African Americans, reduce discrimination in housing, and the like but fail to challenge policies that deny immigrants access to basic rights, we would get only part of the way toward achieving a progressive outcome. Similarly, if we work to organize immigrants into unions, expand worker centers, and increase immigrant wages and labor rights – but leave structural racism intact – we would only complete part of the necessary work. There are shortcomings to both approaches. The former presupposes scarcity of jobs and resources, a “zero sum game.” The latter keeps systems intact and does not challenge racial inequities.

Taken together, however, these approaches constitute a more comprehensive response to resolve the discrimination and oppression faced by both groups. Immigration, racism, and labor issues must be tackled together. First, we call for redistributive justice. Reparations, a progressive tax structure, and a reallocation of war funding – where nearly two trillion has gone to Iraq alone – (along with a reorientation of US foreign policy), would go a long way to build a more equitable society. Second, we need government accountability to build a truly democratic society. Government that is responsive to working-class interests would produce jobs at living wages, rebuild infrastructure and build sorely needed public goods, such as quality and affordable housing, healthcare clinics and hospitals, schools, etc. Radical democratic governance able to meet human needs would thereby mitigate tensions between immigrants and the native born working class. Third, in conjunction with a jobs program, a comprehensive guaranteed income program is needed. Such a program presupposes an unconditional entitlement grounded in a rights-based philosophy; it “belongs in the same league as the abolition of slavery or the introduction of universal suffrage” (Van Parijs 1992: 7). In conjunction with a full employment living-wage jobs program, it would create upward pressure on wages and help dampen competition among people of color.

Immigration reform is not a merely liberal project. Current US policy is rife with contradictions. US neoliberal trade policies (GATT, NAFTA, CAFTA, CAA, etc.) support the free movement of capital across borders, which contributes to the commercialization of land and has spurred the largest wave of migration from rural areas to cities and from country to country in human history. At the same time, US immigration policy restricts the number of foreign workers admitted contingent upon capital’s need for low-wage labor (“guest workers,” a reserve army of the super-exploited). Draconian measures restrict rights and benefits or at times deny them outright and criminalize those who arrive illegally or overstay their visa. Exposing these contradictions – and capital’s hand in shaping these policies – can provide the grounding for a working-class strategy that would transcend internal divisions.

Obviously, to achieve these goals the dominant ideology must be effectively challenged. A political education program cannot be left up to public educational institutions which have historically taught from a white hegemonic standpoint. The Left needs to insert new language into the civic dialogue that challenges the class- and race-obscuring way in which notions like “standards,” “accountability,” and “personal responsibility” have been traditionally deployed (Jennings 2007). Alternative modes of engagement, curriculum, organizing models, and cultural activity can help expose capitalism’s hand in oppression and at the same time inspire hope (Widener 2008). For example, advocates of multiracial coalitions have developed creative ways to identify capitalism as the real culprit that produces low-wage work, unemployment and underemployment (not to mention lack of healthcare, affordable housing, and good schools) rather than seeing an immigrant co-worker or struggling low-wage worker of color as the enemy. They flip the script. Immigrant and African American members of the working class can be seen as allies and can struggle together in community-based campaigns against practices such as outsourcing. “Black-brown alliances” can bring super exploited blacks and new immigrants together as a class to fight against their collective and multiple oppressions and for their mutual liberation.


Contemporary debate about immigrants provides an opportunity to expand the conversation about race and class in America. The newcomers complicate racial categories and formation, putting them in flux, while simultaneously opening possibilities to address historical and contemporary racial inequalities.

Immigrants and their advocates would benefit from greater understanding of racism. The current Nativistic backlash provides an opportunity for immigrant advocates to highlight racism’s hand in xenophobia. The challenge to immigrant advocates is to confront white supremacy and class domination in order to advance the cause of equality and social justice. Linking the struggle for immigrant rights with the steadfast African-American civil rights movement is essential to this agenda.


1. We wish to acknowledge Jonathan Scott and Victor Wallis whose comments on earlier drafts improved this essay.

2. Supreme Court Bakke case (1978).

3. Close behind are Nevada, Maryland, and Georgia at 42% each. US Bureau of the Census. “US Hispanic Population Surpasses 45 Million.” May 1 2008.

4. A useful distinction is sometimes made by analysts between “immigration policy” and “immigrant policy.” “Immigration policy” determines which immigrant groups are permitted to enter the US and in what numbers. “Immigrant policies” refer to federal, state, and local laws that influence the integration or the treatment of immigrants after they have arrived. The federal government sets US immigration policy. US immigrant policy is comprised of various state and local provisions and programs, which are less consistent and coherent than federal policy. Of course, both immigration policy and immigrant policy flow from the larger political economy. Here we focus on immigrant policy and its impact on multiracial politics.

5. DeWind & Kasinitz 1997; Bonilla-Silva 1997; Hellman 2008. To be sure, many 19th- and early 20th-century immigrants were not regarded as “white” at the time of their arrival, but became so as a result of violent social conflict and historical processes creating different patterns of ethnic group identity (Roediger 1991; Ignatiev 1995).

6. Gans 1992; Waters & Eschbach 1995; Ness 2005.

7. Massey 2005; Marable et al. 2006; Widener 2008.

8. Of course gender issues are also integral to the socialist project. See New Labor Forum (Summer 2008) and Eisenstein (forthcoming).

9. According to a recent study published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Bad jobs – ones that pay less than $17 an hour and provide neither health nor retirement benefits – account for about 30% of all jobs in the typical state.” This means that around 30% of Americans live in poverty, that is, around 90 million people (Fremstad, et. al. 2008).

10. “The Wealth of Hispanic Households: 1996 to 2002.” Of course, class inequalities within immigrant groups may also be wide and are concentrated spatially.

11. Waldinger 1996; Hamermesh & Bean 1998; Jones-Correa 2001; Mollenkopf & Logan 2003; Rogers 2004; Steinberg 2005.

12. In 2007 alone, more than 280,000 immigrants were held in detention and 270,000 were deported; nearly two million have been deported since 1996 (New York Immigration Coalition). In March 2008, 57% of all new federal criminal cases involved the prosecution of immigrants, particularly the undocumented, an all-time high (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, TRAC, Syracuse University.

13. Yancy 2003. While many Latinos and Asians report their identities as “white” on Census forms (Allen 1999), most recent immigrants identify as neither black nor white and occupy – or are ascribed – an “in between” or “transnational” space. Jones-Correa 1998; Roediger & Barrett 2002; Lien 2004; Kasinitz, et. al. 2004; Tienda & Mitchell 2006.

14. Many non-white immigrants – whose skin is dark as any African American – do not consider themselves black or the descendants of Africans. For example, darker skinned Dominicans frequently say their roots are Taino (an indigenous group on the island of Hispaniola).

15. Portes & Zhou 1993; Portes & Rumbaut 1996; 2001a; 2001b. The forgoing description of this literature is based on a summary in Nancy Foner 2005: 56.

16. Steinberg (2005: 42) quotes Toni Morrison’s stark challenge to advocates of multiracial alliances: “….the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens. Whatever the ethnicity or nationality of the immigrant, his nemesis is understood to be African-Americans.”

17. “The word ‘racism’ is commonly understood to refer to instances in which one individual intentionally or unintentionally targets others for negative treatment because of their skin color or other group-based physical characteristics. This individualistic conceptualization is too limited. Racialized outcomes do not require racist actors. Structural racism refers to a system of social structures that produces cumulative, durable, race-based inequalities” (powell 2007).

18. Waldinger 1986; Bean et al. 1993; Borjas 2005; Bacon 2007; Widener 2008.

19. Under the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, “The national origins quota system classified Europeans as nationalities and assigned quotas in a hierarchy of desirability, but at the same time … deemed all Europeans to be part of the white race, distinct from those considered to be not white…. The 1924 Act also excluded from immigration Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and other Asians on grounds that they were racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship” (Ngai 2004: 7). Mexicans and other Latinos from the Western Hemisphere were considered white and not limited by quotas. However, “enforcement provisions of restriction – notably visa requirements and border-control policies – profoundly affected Mexicans, making them the single largest group of illegal aliens by the late 1920s” (ibid.) Of course, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was an earlier instance of restricting immigrants on the basis of race and national origin.

It is interesting to note that the Ku Klux Klan played a key role in passing the Johnson-Reed Act. See Curran 1975: 143; Chalmers 1965: 283; Heer 1996; Miller 1998. A 1924 House of Representatives Report acknowledges this fact (Report #350, 68th Congress, 1st Session, II, 4f).

20. The need to include victims of racial oppression finds a parallel in the history of the women’s movement. The “second wave feminism” of the early 1970s was born out of civil rights struggles. Because this wave was dominated by white women, it maintained a blind spot to race and racism. Hence, the voices of black women were not heard. Subsequently, many of those voices expanded discussion and analysis of women’s oppression and how to combat it. Today, immigrant women are increasingly calling attention to the value of women’s rights.

21. Pew Center for the People and the Press. “America’s Immigration Quandary: No Consensus on Immigration Problem or Proposed Fixes.” March 30 2006.
(; Leslie Fulbright. “Polls, leaders say many blacks support illegal immigrants.” San Francisco Chronicle. April 13 2006.

22. David Bacon. “Looking for Common Ground.” ColorLines. Vol 9, No. 1. Spring 2006; Mary-Frances Winters. “Why Blacks, Latinos need each other.” USA Today. April 21 2006. Chaka A.K. Uzondu. “African-Americans, Economic Well-Being, and Immigration.” United for a Fair Economy, The Radical Wealth Divide Project. April 17 2006; Ajamu Dillahunt. “Solidarity Statement to the April 10th Immigration Justice Rally.” Black Radical Congress. April 17 2006.

23. Community Service Society. “US and Foreign-Born Low-Income New Yorkers: Competition or Coalition?” New York: Community Service Society. January 2007.

24. Carroll Doherty. “Attitudes Toward Immigration: In Black and White.” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. April 26 2006.

25. Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “AWOL: Black Leaders and Immigration. Where are the Old Line Civil Rights Groups?” March 29 2006; Rachel L. Swarns. “Growing Unease for Some Blacks on Immigration.” New York Times. May 4 2006; Yvonne Abraham. “Immigration hits home in Lynn: Blacks voice fear of a loss of jobs.” Boston Globe. April 16 2006; Valencia Mohammed. “Immigration: Where Blacks Stand.” New American Media. April 18 2006.

26. Jesse Jackson, Sr. “‘Si Se Puede’ means ‘We shall Overcome.’ ” May 3 2006. Email communication from the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network.

27. We prefer the term “multiracial” as opposed to “multiethnic.” The term multiethnic can lead to burying race and thus power dynamics. As for “people of color,” the advantage of this term lies in its inclusiveness and its equalizing effect. This strength, however, is also a weakness. The formulation homogenizes groups that possess different rights and social privileges. Moreover, it sometimes leads to disregarding the white working class. For example, some contend that people of color can and should organize themselves separately as a bloc to gain power. Although this position has a certain short-run merit, we believe that multiracial alliances are necessary for changing power structures. The failure to engage working-class people could cause the Left to succumb to one of the great failures of progressive movements – not confronting white supremacy. Thankfully, as we show below, new political formations are not taking the bait and are instead building multiracial working-class alliances.

28. Martinez 1998; Forester 2004; Ness 2005; Fine 2006; Marable et al. 2006; Sen 2008; Fletcher & Gapasin 2008; Widener 2008.

29. Ness 2005; Fine 2006; Jayaraman 2005; Sen 2008; Widener 2008.

30. Sen, Rinku. “White Progressives Don’t Get It” Colorlines. Oakland, California. January/February 2007.

31. David Bacon. “Looking for Common Ground.” ColorLines. Vol 9, No. 1. Spring 2006; Mary-Frances Winters. “Why Blacks, Latinos need each other.” USA Today. April 21 2006. Chaka A. K. Uzondu. “African-Americans, Economic Well-Being, and Immigration.” United for a Fair Economy, The Radical Wealth Divide Project. April 17 2006; Ajamu Dillahunt. “Solidarity Statement to the April 10th Immigration Justice Rally.” Black Radical Congress. April 17 2006.

32. Fine 2006; Bacon 2007; Boushey & Fremstad 2008; Fletcher & Gaspin 2008; Widener 2008, Sen 2008.


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