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"Natural Allies or Irreconcilable Foes? Reflections on African-American/Immigrant Relations,"

by Andrew Grant-Thomas, Yusuf Sarfati & Cheryl Staats March/April 2010 issue of Poverty & Race

For better and worse, attention to relations between African Americans and immigrants is sharply on the rise. In 2006, the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps chose to begin their national caravan against undocumented immigration from a park in an African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles. That same year, the Center for New Community in Chicago launched its national Which Way Forward campaign, hoping to nurture an informed debate among black Americans about the impact of immigration and the anti-immigration movement on their communities. Recent years have seen a spate of books and articles with such titles as Help or Hindrance? The Economic Implications of Immigration for African Americans, “The Real Face of the Immigration Debate? Explaining Attitudes toward Immigration among African Americans,” and On the Back of Blacks? Immigrants and the Fortunes of African Americans.

In terms of dialogue, writing and programming, concern with “Black-Brown” relations is rampant. Of course, many immigrants are not Latino, and many Latinos are not immigrants. However, in light of the fact that fully two in five Latinos in the United States were born elsewhere, and that immigrants and their children comprise the majority of Latinos in this country, it is clear that immigrants are deeply implicated in the “Brown” part of the “Black-Brown” phenomenon. Why this surge of interest in African-American/immigrant relations?

Demographic trends provide a partial answer. One century after W.E.B. DuBois foretold that the problem of the 20th Century would be the problem of the color line, our nation looks astoundingly different. In 1950, the United States was 90% white, and African Americans, heavily concentrated in the rural South and urban North, were the country’s only significant minority population. Today, the country is 66% white, while Latinos and Asians living in metropolitan areas in the West and Southwest, their numbers fuelled by immigration, represent our fastest growing populations. Latinos now outnumber blacks nationally, and several states, and many of our largest cities, are already minority-majority. To some degree, then, sheer force of numbers itself compels interest.

Tensions and perceived tensions between the groups also draw attention. From gang violence to political representation, from labor concerns to negative stereotypes, black Americans and immigrants are contesting a range of issues. A pervasive media storyline that underscores instances of conflict while all but ignoring signs of cooperation only exacerbates the difficulties. In many communities, including some in the South, Midwest and Northeast previously characterized almost exclusively by black-white interactions, relations among people of color are more politically prominent than relations between whites and nonwhites.

Many progressives also note that during this generation-long era of deepening inequality between the most affluent Americans and everyone else, African Americans and immigrants number disproportionately among our nation’s truly disadvantaged. The point could be made with respect to virtually any dimension of well-being, including poverty, health, wealth, education, criminal justice and civic engagement. Consider the present housing foreclosure crisis. United for a Fair Economy (UFE) reports that people of color are three times more likely than whites (55% vs.17%) to receive high-cost, subprime loans, with black and Latino neighborhoods being the hardest hit. UFE predicts that Latino and African-American households each stand to lose upwards of $100 billion over the next few years, largely eviscerating modest reductions in the racial wealth gap made over the last generation.

Increasingly, we hear nonprofit leaders, scholars, advocates, community members and even elected officials pushing the observation about the communities’ common challenges a step further. Rather than succumb to largely structural inducements to regard each other as rivals, they argue, the interests of black Americans and immigrants would be well served by strategic collaboration between them. Echoing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s support for Cesar Chavez and the farm workers four decades earlier, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr. wrote in the August 13, 2006 edition of Motion Magazine that the “new immigrant freedom movement must and is being embraced by African Americans and today’s movement for peace and social justice…[T]he hands that picked the cotton are joining with the hands that picked the lettuce, connecting barrios and ghettos, fields and plantations.”

The stakes involved in the course of African-American/immigrant relations extend beyond the groups themselves. Many progressives regard the communities as core constituents within any viable, broad-based movement for expanded social justice in the United States. In that light, the current tension tragically recapitulates the conflict between blacks and working-class whites that has long hampered the development of a multiracial, class-based social justice movement in the United States. If nothing else, that history underlines the error behind the presumption that alliances between black Americans and immigrants are either natural or inevitable. Indeed, the obstacles to the emergence of a robust partnership are almost as daunting as its possible benefits are attractive.

Building Effective Alliances

Building effective alliances typically involves time, money, strong organizations and a measure of expertise, among other resources. Among people subject to the double jeopardy of living in poor families and neighborhoods, as blacks and Latinos disproportionately are, these resources are scarce. Political, economic and social conflicts of interest, coupled with a ragged history of power-sharing in places where one group has predominated and broad ignorance of each other’s historical and current struggles, create a potentially volatile mix. Members of both groups too often interpret sociopolitical realities in positional, zero-sum terms, whereby gains for one side imply losses for the other.

In this context, cultural differences too readily become cultural clashes. Mutual mistrust, negative stereotyping and language barriers hinder attempts at communication. Institutional segregation—in workplaces and places of worship, for example—can reinforce cultural distance even when members of the two communities share neighborhoods. In that regard, the cynical manipulations of an aggressive nativist movement, built substantially on the leadership and organizational foundations of former white power activists, hardly help.

Differences in racial sensibilities add to these problems. Whereas many Latino and African immigrants do not embrace race as a primary identity marker, African Americans typically do. These differing perceptions about the salience and meaning of race can also create significant hurdles to constructive dialogue and joint action.

Observations from the Field: Opportunities and Strategies of Community Organizing

With financial support from Public Interest Projects (the collaborative of funds that supported this project), we recently spoke to a number of African-American and immigrant activists and organizers to solicit their wisdom into the status of relations between their respective constituencies. While acknowledging the challenges, most were firm in their conviction that a robust set of opportunities for meaningful partnerships exists.

Alongside the admitted vulnerabilities of their communities, they see numerous strengths. They see that both groups command meaningful political, economic and social assets. They welcome the rapid emergence of whole categories of potential bridge-building leaders, including African, Caribbean and Afro-Latino immigrants, and multicultural youth. They celebrate the increasing number of promising venues for collaboration—worker centers, unions, schools and multiracial churches among them. Above all, the community leaders and organizers who shared their strategies and visions with us believe that the fates of Latinos, African Americans and immigrants in the United States are linked, and that it is past time that the advocacy and activism emanating from both communities better reflect that reality.

From our conversations, we identified a set of approaches based on alternative logics around which African-American/immigrant alliances are formed: intercultural relationship-building, issue-based organizing, and workplace-based organizing. These three do not exhaust the range of alliance-building efforts in the field; nor are they mutually exclusive. Some organizations employ multiple or hybrid strategies. Our descriptions refer to ideal types that may or may not correspond to the practices of particular initiatives on the ground.

Intercultural Relationship-building

Community organizers who use this approach aspire to build strong multicultural communities. For them, establishing healthy relationships among people of color is an important value in itself. Insofar as relationship-building reshapes identities and interests, it is also seen as a prerequisite for effective issue campaigns. These organizers suggest that interpersonal trust between the communities needs to be established first, and this can be done only by speaking to commonly held misconceptions through deliberate re-education. Without the trust born of solid relationships, racial and xenophobic tensions invariably emerge and partnership development becomes episodic at best. In sum, relationship-building measures must be central to the alliance and should precede any efforts at political or grass-roots mobilization. Such measures can range from preparing simple cultural exchange events to engaging in specialized curriculums and trainings.

The Bay Area’s Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), which grew out of the Priority Africa Network, is a prominent example of an organization that uses a relationship-building approach. BAJI’s African Diaspora Dialogues program aims to forge closer relations between African immigrants and African Americans. In these informal conversations, activists create spaces for participants to tell their personal stories. These individual narratives help to expose the misconceptions each group harbors about the other. Reverend Kelvin Sauls, a BAJI co-founder, says that “the biggest tool that folks use to divide is ignorance.” Nunu Kidane, Network Coordinator for the Priority Africa Network, affirms that dialogues have effectively challenged prejudicial frames and myths. She believes that “it has been phenomenally transformative in changing the way African Americans and African immigrants look at one another.”

The Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network uses a similar relationship-first approach. Its Resisting Rivalry project is an effort to build intentional relationships among youth, women and low-wage workers of African-American and Latino immigrant communities. Resisting Rivalry provides extensive education through focus groups and workshops, among other methods.

Another promising program, South by Southwest, was launched through the partnership among Southern Echo, Southwest Organizing Project and Southwest Workers’ Union. These organizations use historical narratives and art as a way to transform the identities of their constituents and create cultural bridges. The program “brings together African-American and Latino communities from three states—New Mexico, Texas and Mississippi—to share histories and current realities in each state from the perspective of grass-roots struggles, and at the same time develop trust between all of the participants.” In this program, participants learn about the shared histories of Mexico and the United States. Leroy Johnson, Executive Director of Southern Echo, asserts that “we have to start with the historical and cultural perspectives of the different communities and how these histories come together.” Art, including poetry, writing and photography, are utilized to explicate the cultural-historical linkages.

Lastly, some organizers use toolkits and curricular materials to dissolve barriers and create inclusive, empathetic space for participants. The Crossing Borders curriculum, developed by the Center for Community Change, Fair Immigration Reform Movement, and CASA de Maryland, is one important example. This curriculum includes activities that inform African Americans about the global forces that propel immigration to the United States and the relation between racism and the immigration debate. For immigrants, it provides important information about the history of the Civil Rights struggle in the U.S., the centrality of African Americans in the struggle, and the structures that constrain black American communities today.

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the Highlander Research Center have prepared a similar toolkit, Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in the Global Era (BRIDGE). The curriculum includes “a set of popular educational tools and exercises designed to engage the immigrant and refugee community members in a dialogue about racism, labor, migration and global economic structures in relation to migration.”

Issue-based Organizing

Some community activists place a premium on collaboration around issues of mutual concern rather than on trust-building. As noted above, immigrant and African-American communities share many important concerns. Both suffer the racialization of the criminal justice system, racial profiling and police brutality. In many low-opportunity neighborhoods, immigrant and African-American children have low academic performances and high dropout rates in under-resourced public schools. Thus, funding for public education emerges as a common cause. These shared concerns turn into opportunities to the extent that advocates act on the recognition that progressive policy reform in these areas would benefit all communities of color.

Issue-based organizing acknowledges the importance of relationship-building. However, the community organizers who embrace this approach argue that the best way to build solidarity across lines of race, ethnicity and nativity is through appeals to shared “bread and butter” interests. Trust develops most surely as a byproduct of common struggle, preferably one that yields tangible successes. With reference to immigrants, Bill Chandler, Executive Director of the Mississippi Immigrants’ Rights Alliance, suggested that the “first step is to connect with the African- American community because you’re dealing with common issues, including racism, which here in the South, particularly in Mississippi, but also in Alabama and Georgia, is driving the attack on immigrants.” In contrast, these organizers claim, inter-group relationship challenges, as such, provide uncertain motivation for partnerships, especially among poor and working-class people likely to have more pressing concerns. “Issue-first” alliances are typically formed between organizations, rather than within particular organizations.

The 2006 campaign against racial profiling in Portland, Oregon by the Center for Intercultural Organizing, Oregon Action, the Latino Network, and Northwest Constitutional Rights Center, exemplified this kind of organizing. This issue was salient for all of the organizations. As noted by Jo Ann Bowman, Executive Director of Oregon Action, “We realized at that time that this was a severe community problem and challenge that we needed to take some formal action on.” The organizations approached the mayor to request a series of listening sessions between the public and the police. After these sessions, the organizations wrote a report in December 2006 that was presented to the police chief and City Council. Since that time, a community organization has been established to track complaints about the police. In addition, the City Council created a racial profiling committee that includes representatives from a range of community groups whose constituencies are most affected by racial profiling.

Workplace-based Organizing

In some sectors of the economy, especially in low-paying jobs, African Americans and immigrants work side-by-side, making workplaces, along with schools, the frontlines of de facto negotiations between the groups. These sectors include construction work, the hotel industry, restaurants and the meatpacking industry. Some workplaces are home to initiatives that operate in the absence of formal coalitions. Unlike initiatives shaped by the first two approaches, these initiatives mobilize constituents not around their identities as “African Americans,” “immigrants,” or people of color, but around their common identity as workers. In other words, the goal of the organization is not to support immigrant or African-American issues, as such, but to promote worker issues. Organizers tend to emphasize the salience of associational rather than communal identities.

Perhaps the most visible of these initiatives is the “Justice at Smithfield” campaign, which began in 1994 at the biggest hog-processing plant in the United States, in Tar Heel, North Carolina. This initiative is based on the attempt of workers to unionize, to improve health and safety conditions in the plant, and to democratize their job environment. Latinos, mostly immigrants, constitute 60% of the workforce of the plant; 30% of the workers are African Americans. A 2007 report prepared for the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute at the University of California-Berkeley details different grass-roots solidarity initiatives emerging between Latino immigrants and African-American laborers similar to the “Justice at Smithfield” campaign.

Another successful mobilization occurred in the restaurant industry in New York City, when the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) was formed in the aftermath of 9/11 with the workers who lost their jobs at the famous Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center. The organization, composed of Latino, African-American, African immigrant, Arab, Asian and white restaurant workers, has enjoyed solid successes, winning over $1,000,000 for restaurant workers from employers, following charges of discrimination and unpaid wages.

The organization also opened COLORS, a cooperatively-owned restaurant that serves dinners featuring global cuisine in the evenings and serves as the location for the COLORS Hospitality Opportunities for Workers training institute during the day. Saru Jayaraman, one of ROC-NY’s co-founders, reported that members of ROC-NY are mobilized as restaurant workers, rather than as Blacks, Latinos or Arabs. She believes that “people absolutely feel a lot more identity as a restaurant worker, in my experience, than they do as an immigrant worker.”

Concluding Observations

African Americans and immigrants are neither natural allies nor irreconcilable foes. The potential benefits of greater collaboration between them are real, but so, too, are the challenges to realizing those benefits. After talking to dozens of advocates and activists across the country engaged in this critical work, we find reasons for optimism. From the worlds of advocacy and philanthropy, and from the communities themselves, more people are calling for and supportive of strong, sustained partnerships. Groups such as the Applied Research Center, Highlander Education and Research Center, the Center for Community Change, the Center for New Community, and our own Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity promote powerful analyses that discern the roots of intergroup tension in macroeconomic dynamics such as globalization and policy developments like NAFTA. These analyses recognize that our fates are linked across lines of race, ethnicity and class.

While each geographic region of the country generates its own dynamic, organizers identified several common needs. These include a comprehensive mapping of alliance-building efforts across the country; the collection and dissemination of existing educational and relationship-building curricular materials; the development of new materials adaptable to regional and local contexts; the identification, commissioning and dissemination of applied research studies and instructive case studies of African-American/immigrant alliances and other forms of “joint action”; the creation of curricular materials targeted to community organizations and residents who wish to guard against African-American/immigrant divides in their communities; and the development of fact-based media frames and talking points for local, state and federal policymakers that go beyond mere “myth-busting.”

Ongoing efforts and evident opportunities for collaboration are grounds for hope about the future of African-American/immigrant alliance-building work, but more support is needed to bring these opportunities to fruition. Creating alliances that endure and prosper is a challenging task that requires considerable resources. Organizers also highlighted the need for more grass-roots leadership training and institutional capacity-building so that the viability of partnerships does not rely on the health of particular interpersonal relationships alone. The importance of building the field and sharing knowledge and resources among the community organizers undertaking this work cannot be overstated. The prospects are promising but will only be fully realized with additional support and continued dedication.


Black Alliance for Just Immigration,

CASA de Maryland,
Center for Community Change/Fair Immigration Reform Movement,

Center for Intercultural Organizing,

Highlander Research and Education Center,

Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,

Latino Network,

Mississippi Immigrants’ Rights Alliance,

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights,

Oregon Action,

Priority Africa Network,

Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York,

Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network,

Southern Echo,

Southwest Organizing Project,

Southwest Workers’ Union,

Andrew Grant-Thomas is Co-Founder and Co-Developer of EmbraceRace and works as an independent consultant. Formerly Senior Researcher at the Harvard Civil Rights Project and Deputy Director at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity, he has written, spoken, and worked on a wide range of race-related issues. agrantth
Yusuf Sarfati is an Asst. Prof. in the Dept. of Politics & Government at Illinois State Univ
Cheryl Staats is Research Assistant at the Kirwan Inst.

This article is an edited version of their copiously footnoted original paper, containing a map as well—available upon request from the authors.

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