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The Joys of Art

Thursday, May 25, 2006

(Soul) Food for Thought

Erin Aubry Kaplan: Is black-brown unity even possible?
Alliance can only come from looking honestly at differences.
May 24, 2006


Caramel---City High

(To all the men who come online thinking I can be bought....I ain't for SALE boo....I've been at this online game longer than you!!!! Don't try to SAVE me!!!! I might be the one saving you!!!)

THE IMMIGRANT-rights movement, in addition to raising anxiety among blacks, has also renewed hopes for a black-Latino alliance. This is a lovely idea. It is also doomed to fail.

The mission of the moment — the subject of panels and forums flowering all over town — is how to bring together two ethnic groups that, after all, share so much: neighborhoods, public schools, economic struggles, experiences of racial bias. Coalitionists argue that black-brown unity is not blind idealism but visible reality. We don't have to create it so much as point it out. Once we all recognize how much we have in common, the theory goes, we'll be on more equal footing and better able to augment each other's political strengths. There will be a formidable front of people of color better able to effect changes that benefit us all.

The problem with this ideal is not just that it is simplistic. It also overlooks the same critical gray areas ignored by people such as homeless activist Ted Hayes, who persists in his campaign to get blacks to join the Minuteman Project, which monitors the U.S.-Mexican border. In the matter of black-brown alliances, the devil — and deliverance — has always been in the details.

The unity is seductive on the surface, but how deep does it go? Blacks and Latinos have different experiences and ideas — not only about what America is but about what it means. And these differences have been suppressed, not examined or celebrated, by the cult of multiculturalism that dominates race relations and fuels the renewed call for black-brown unity.

It gets even more complicated. Though blacks and Latinos live peaceably side by side in South L.A. and elsewhere, for example, blacks are alarmed by the steady erosion of the last of the city's black neighborhoods. Latino immigrants are not intentionally pushing us out; they are simply living where it's feasible. And many of us have left our neighborhoods voluntarily, fleeing the urban rat race for the (supposedly) greener pastures of the outlying 'burbs or even the "new" old South. Still, it feels as if we are being pushed out, and we react — not well, for the most part. But there you have it.

Many blacks also feel as if they've been pushed out of jobs that then go to Latino immigrants. But what's too often overlooked is that the immigrants didn't do the pushing, the employers did.

For many employers, illegal immigration is a double winner. They get to hire cheap labor, and they don't have to hire blacks, whom they were loath to hire in the first place. It's true that there aren't many black parking valets or hotel maids anymore. But thanks to racist American labor practices, they never had a foothold in the better-paying trades — carpentry, plumbing and electrical work — that Latinos now dominate.

Blacks and Latinos took to the streets in the 1992 riots, which were sparked by a sense of injustice and a lack of ownership in South L.A. But when the smoke cleared and there was a need for community rebuilding, it was Latinos who benefited more from the construction boom. Blacks made some attempts to ensure equal participation, with little success. The bitterness of that experience lingers.

In the documentary "The New L.A.," a narrator describes how, until the mid-1980s or so, most of the janitors working in Century City and downtown were African American. As immigration peaked, many of those janitors were fired and replaced by Latinos willing to work for half the pay and fewer benefits. The narrator only mentions this as a prelude to a discussion of the Justice for Janitors movement, the triumphant union organizing campaign that inaugurated Latino civic involvement.

Everyone wants justice for janitors, of course, including me. But I was left asking: What happened to all those black janitors? What about that justice? It's a question that has few takers.

None of this negates the real things black and brown folks have in common, or the need for unity. (In fact, it makes that need much clearer.) But before coming together, we have to look unflinchingly at the forces keeping us apart.

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