|Borders and Bridges:
African Americans, Immigration and Racial Justice
It's impossible to view black sentiment on immigration, or the
possibilities for coalition building, as a monolith. Today, there are
millions of immigrants in the US of African descent. One in ten foreign
born US residents are from the Caribbean. One in twenty hail directly
from the African continent. And for African Americans, whose forced
migration began with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the history
includes both conflict and collaboration on immigration issues.
Why would such "natural" allies have such difficulty coming
together? And more importantly, what are the opportunities for building
lasting alliances grounded in mutual interest and collective vision?
Black anti-immigrant activism dates as far back as the 19th century
with the efforts of black trade unions to exclude Chinese laborers from
jobs and trade organizations. More recent battles between established
black leadership working (often unethically) to hold onto power, and
leadership emerging from new immigrant communities seeking fair
representation and access, have grown self-defeating at best -- violent
at worst. And although blacks with anti-immigrant sentiment are among
the minority, these tensions belie significant fear of real or perceived
scarcity, job displacement, loss of political power and plain old
bigotry. With white dominance and power sadly a given, it's a classic
fight for the privilege of being "number two".
Nineteenth century arsons and murders in black communities by Irish
immigrants and more recent clashes between African Americans and
immigrants from Southeast Asia are examples from the equally long
history of spurning and violence toward blacks by "non-black"
immigrant groups. As the hard won gains of African Americans are fragile
and hotly contested, there is animosity when immigrants arriving with
relatively more capital, more acceptance and more privilege seem to
"pass them by". This animosity is exacerbated when groups that
avoid working with blacks leverage the language, imagery and tactics of
the black civil rights movement to advance their struggles.
Scholars like UC Berkeley's Ian Haney-Lopez assert that one barrier
to coalition building is that we black folk focus too much on race. If
African Americans insist on building coalitions based on racial
solidarity, says Haney-Lopez, they will miss out. In this analysis,
racism only occurs between blacks and whites. Hence, the preference by
some immigrant organizations for the term "xenophobia" to name
and make distinctive the character of oppression that happens to them.
Xenophobia literally means fear of dark or darker people. Given the
fact that race is a social construction (that is who we are racially is
defined more so by socioeconomic and political convention than biology),
assertions of xenophobia assume that the problems and solutions are
located outside of an analysis of racism and white privilege, and that
'xenophobic oppression' is a result of one's status as a darker version
of the same "race" or social designation as whites.
There are obvious problems with attempting to distinguish xenophobia
from racism. The point is that the distinction connotes separation from
the meaning and people associated with racism in order to cling to a
slim thread of privilege. The politics underpinning this kind of
separation are much like those of the "colored" category under
apartheid South Africa. To paraphrase philosopher Iris Young, it is the
battle over who will be exploited and who will be marginalized.
The confluence of these forces and the largely white-controlled,
dehumanizing public context makes coalition building a challenge. Yet,
there's hope. Groups are bucking traditional thinking and making a
difference. Groups like CAUSA in Oregon and the Committee Against Anti
Asian Violence (CAAAV) in New York have been working consciously to
build principled alliances that include African Americans.
These initiatives employ a comprehensive framework for understanding
common challenges and varied nuances of the intersections race, class,
gender, sexual orientation, globalization and other forces. Third World
Within, a New York based coalition that includes Malcolm X Grassroots
Movement, New York City (an African American led group) and the Audre
Lorde Project (a multiracial organization) and CAAAV are one example.
Other multicultural organizing groups like Oakland California's PUEBLO
and its "mother" organization the Center for Third World
Organizing (CTWO) create space for deeper discussion and work that
brings together African Americans, non-black immigrants, and others in
This work is part of a tradition of progressive, crosscutting
organizing that builds bridges that groups can walk across together.
They avoid "number two-ism" and challenge the assumptions that
make it possible to have a "number one" -- assumptions around
us and within us. They also have another important thing in common: a
broad but focused agenda of mutual interest and dreaming.
In the final analysis, it will not be an immigrant movement or a
black liberation movement that will forge the necessary bridges. It will
be a broader movement that has in sharp focus how these and other issues
of human dignity and justice relate and fortify one another.
Makani Themba-Nixon is author of Making Policy Making Change,
available on Chardon Press