THE BLACK ALIENATION The New Republic January 30, 1995 Peter SkerryThe Cooke Elementary School in Washington, D.C.'s Adams-Morgan neighborhood---home to white yuppies, poor blacks and Central American immigrants---recently received a $1 million federal grant. The windfall has become a source not of celebration but of fierce dispute. The grant was awarded to make the school completely bilingual---and much of the outrage has come from black parents and teachers. (Latino parents are divided on the issue.) Black teachers fear they will be transferred because they don't speak Spanish. As for the parents, one mother told the Washington Post, "This is my neighborhood. My brothers and sisters and cousins went to Cooke, my kids go to Cooke, and I don't want to see the nature of the school changed."
The incident illustrates an important question about immigration that is being neglected in our emerging policy debate on the issue: How does immigration affect black Americans? Ask the man on the street this question, and he will tell you that immigrants are outcompeting blacks, and other Americans, on numerous fronts. Yet, in Washington policy circles, this common-sense view is far from self-evident. Even more to the point, the question itself seldom gets raised these days, even as immigration heats up as a public policy issue. The indifference of black leaders to this question is a separate issue unto itself---as is the obsessive tolerance of liberals who reject the question out of an abiding faith that because blacks and today's immigrants are all "people of color" their interests must be congruent. As for conservatives, whether pro- or anti-immigration, they remain oblivious to the possible negative consequences of having black Americans see yet another group of newcomers move past them in the struggle for social and economic advancement.
When the impact of immigration on blacks has indeed been scrutinized, it has been through such a narrow lens that the resulting analyses miss the bigger picture. The terrain has been dominated by labor- market economists, who have found that, as a result of immigration, black wage rates and employment levels have either benefited or at least held steady. While such general findings may be technically valid, they often fail to capture the relatively localized impacts of immigrants on low-skilled urban labor markets.
Evidence from the 1990 Census shows significant migration from areas where new immigrants live. This migration, though often portrayed as occurring among affluent whites, has in fact been most pronounced among poverty-level whites, and significant among blacks. Research by William Frey at the University of Michigan reveals that between 1985 and 1990 almost 12 percent of poor whites and almost 5 percent of poor blacks left metropolitan Los Angeles. Such migrations have been even greater in other metropolitan areas, notably New York and Chicago. Frey observes that these migrations might explain the widespread findings that mmigration hasn't hurt blacks economically. In any event, in LA and other cities, Latino immigrants now do dominate substantial segments of the service sector, such as janitorial jobs. While they may not have pushed blacks out of these positions, Latinos are sufficiently entrenched that blacks will probably have a hard time finding their way back in.
Sociologist William Julius Wilson and his colleagues at the Chicago Urban Poverty and Family Life Study offer further evidence. Wilson compared employment patterns of inner-city Mexican and black men; he found that employers generally prefer to hire immigrant Mexicans over blacks, in part because the former are more directly tied into informal job networks that both support individual work effort and reassure employers of the workers' reliability. To cite a mundane example, Latinos are more likely than blacks to belong to carpools, and are therefore less dependent on unreliable transportation.
Wilson also notes that employers don't respond well to the attitudes that black men tend to display. As his colleague, Richard Taub, observes of the individuals in their study:
Though Wilson's findings are complex, he, like other researchers looking at local labor markets, concludes that inner-city black men are losing out in the competition with immigrants. But labor-market competition doesn't tell the whole story. There are plenty of other arenas in which disadvantaged black Americans might compete with immigrants. Politics, for example, springs to mind. Certainly in LA, the competition between blacks and Latinos for public recognition and visibility is intense. From all sides you often hear the lament: "There's only room for one minority in this town." More concretely, recent redistrictings have revealed struggles for dominance between the two groups. With regard to public housing schools and health facilities, disadvantaged blacks also clearly feel threatened by immigrants. Again in LA the classic case is Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in Watts, built in response to the 1965 riots and now dominated by Latino immigrants. Then there's the dispute that erupted a few months ago when the only Hispanic on the Board of Governors of the U.S. Postal Service, the nation's largest civilian employer, charged that blacks were "overrepresented" and Hispanics "underrepresented" among postal employees. Governor Tirso del Junco pointed to a recent General Accounting Office report revealing, for example, that in LA in 1993 blacks made up about 10 percent of the regional labor force, but 62 percent of the postal work force. For Hispanics, the corresponding figures were 35 percent and 15 percent. The irony here is that the postal service is one of the few institutions where established job networks have benefited blacks. This may present an extreme case, but it points out how even better-situated blacks will be pitted against immigrants and their progeny.
Is the competition between immigrants and black Americans all to the bad? Maybe not. If fewer blacks go to work for the post office (a rather moribund operation, after all), more may go to work for Federal Express. And perhaps it isn't a tragedy if poor blacks leave inner cities in search of opportunities elsewhere. This seems to be the position of Ron Unz, the conservative Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who challenged Governor Pete Wilson in the Republican primary last June on an aggressively pro-immigration platform. In a Policy Review article provocatively titled "Immigration or the Welfare State: Which Is Our Real Enemy?" Unz asserted that immigration "can be the issue that sparks a massive rollback of the welfare state and the ethnic group policies of the past twenty or thirty years."
Maybe such immigration-induced competition could help disadvantaged blacks, although we don't really know enough to judge. In the meantime, there is considerable evidence that what some regard as bracing competition, blacks themselves regard as shock therapy. Frey's demographic research indicates that rather than leaving immigrant-heavy metropolitan areas for bright prospects elsewhere, poor blacks are simply being pushed out by diminished opportunities where they now live. Reinforcing this pessimistic interpretation of the evidence are years of opinion survey data that have long demonstrated black Americans to be less than enthusiastic about immigration. California's Proposition 187 passed with significant support from blacks. Despite the uniform and vehement opposition of black leaders to 187, California blacks split on the measure, 47 percent in favor and 53 percent against. According to Harold Meyerson ofthe leftish LA Weekly, there was even greater support for 188 among blacks in South-Central LA, where the physical displacement of blacks by Latino immigrants has been most visible in recent years. Wilson, who placed anti-immigration themes at the center of his re-election campaign, won 20 percent of the statewide black vote---twice the historic level of black support for Republican candidates, Meyerson ntoes.
Similarly telling are the various civil disturbances that have occurred over the past decade. In Miami, black disaffection with immigrant competitors has erupted im mass violence on several occasions. Though not as clear-cut, recent riots in Washington, DC, and of course in Los Angeles arguably reflected similar sentiments among blacks. Such episodes suggest that blacks won't respond to immigration and its attendant urban changes passively.
None of this should be construed as excusing vicious, violent or unlawful behavior. Nor is it to excuse the actions, or inactions, of politicians such as David Dinkins, who, as mayor of New York, turned his back on the abuse heaped upon Korean businesses by black demagogues. But such behavior is a fact of political life that reflects a growing sense of isolation and despair on the part of black Americans.
But this conclusion doesn't carry with it any clear prescription for immigration policy. Blacks continue to have a strong claim on America's conscience. Yet this doesn't necessarily point to restrictionist policies. The advantages of high levels of immigration to the general welfare may outweigh any specific negative impacts on blacks. Or perhaps such impacts can be addressed by compensatory policies and programs, though our record here is spotty at best. But one day, the same black leaders who are today so silent on this issue may stake yet another claim of injustice against American society. Such claims will be hypocritcal and opportunistic. If the rest of us persist in evading the issue, such charges will also have the ring of truth.
Peter Skerry is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.