Julie M. Weise: African Americans and Immigrants’ Rights in the Trump Era

UNC Press Authors Off the Page - Expert Commentary on the Issues of the Day - Roundtable 1: #immigration

Today’s essay on #immigration comes from Julie M. Weise, assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon. She is author of Corazón de Dixie: Mexicanos in the U.S. South since 1910 (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

African Americans and Immigrants’ Rights in the Trump Era

Days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, the City of San Francisco became the first so-called “sanctuary city” to sue the president over his order to withhold federal funding from municipalities that did not cooperate fully with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Media coverage of the “sanctuary city” controversy since then has appeared at first glance to reflect Trump’s own parody that opposition to his agenda comes primarily from “coastal elites” who, if they aren’t from San Francisco, might as well be.

But look a little closer, and a different kind of pro-immigrant political actor becomes visible. Alongside predictable sanctuary cities like Los Angeles and New York City, other cities, including New Orleans, Birmingham, Jackson, and Atlanta-area DeKalb County—all majority-black—have been declaring themselves sanctuary cities, implementing sanctuary-like policies, and affirming mandates to minimize cooperation with ICE. These municipalities have put their federal funding at risk to protect local immigrant communities. In most cases, black politicians, sheriffs, and police chiefs have been the ones to advocate and implement these policies. But they have emerged from an increasingly robust history of political cooperation between African Americans and Latinos in the U.S. South over the past decade.

The Black-vs.-Latino Narrative

Back in 2008 when Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton vied for the Democratic nomination, the “Will Latinos support a black candidate?” narrative dominated the news cycle. “Many Latinos are not ready for a person of color,” said a young Latina in a typical quote featured by the New York Times. “I don’t think many Latinos will vote for Obama.” Academic social science from new Latino settlement areas in the U.S. South seemingly confirmed the narrative: “Latino Immigrants come to the U.S. with negative stereotypes of black Americans,” declared a Duke research team after conducting a survey in Durham, N.C., in 2003. Yet though Clinton did dominate among Latinos in the 2008 primary, they rallied to Obama’s side once he clinched the nomination, delivering the country’s first black president a historically large margin of Latino votes that November.

While ultimately misleading, the black-vs.-Latino narrative of the 2008 election cycle was not entirely unfounded. As many historians have noted, from the 1930s through the fall of legal segregation, Mexican American strategies for litigating Jim Crow were based on the “Caucasian strategy” of claiming legal whiteness rather than challenging segregation as a whole. During the civil rights era, some of Texas’s Mexican American leaders refused service to African Americans in their restaurants and asserted, “Let the Negro fight his own battles,” as UNC Press author Brian Behnken has shown.

Black and Latino Social Alliances

In 1920s Mississippi, Mexican immigrant cotton pickers sometimes moved in with black families as boarders or sons-in-law.
But the divergent political strategies of African Americans and middle-class Mexican Americans masked complex and often amicable relationships between African Americans and working-class Mexican immigrants, particularly in the twentieth-century U.S. South. For most of that century, Mexicans—and later other Latinos—arrived to take southern agricultural jobs that most African Americans were trying to leave, so labor conflict did not materialize.

In 1920s Mississippi, Mexican immigrant cotton pickers sometimes moved in with black families as boarders or sons-in-law, as I show in my 2015 book. In the 1950s Arkansas Delta, Mexican immigrants fought for admission to white restaurants and stores. A deeper look shows that this was a fight for first-class citizenship, not another salvo of black-vs.-Latino animosity. Even once Mexican men won the free access they sought, in practice they bypassed those same white restaurants and preferred to spend their free time on the black side of town. Yet these casual, often comfortable relationships never manifested in the political sphere.

That changed in the twenty-first century. As Latinos settled in greater numbers beyond rural agricultural areas and began to compete with African Americans for jobs in construction and poultry processing as well as housing in shared neighborhoods, tensions indeed emerged. But in a mirror image of the earlier pattern, sometimes-uncomfortable relationships in daily life have not precluded powerful coalition building in the political sphere.

Black and Latino Political Alliances

When a rash of anti-immigrant local and state-level ordinances swept the South between 2005 and 2012 using all-too-familiar racially charged rhetoric, the region’s black politicians smelled a rat while its emerging Latino leadership reached out for allies to help them weather the storm. Whatever tensions existed and despite the white-led anti-immigrant movement’s efforts to woo blacks, no African American anti-immigrant movement emerged. On the contrary, African American leaders publicly supported the immigrants’ rights movement’s use of the “freedom rides” metaphor in 2003 and marched with Latinos at most of the South’s pro-immigrant rallies in 2006.

In New Orleans, the Workers’ Center for Racial Justice founded after Hurricane Katrina pursued a deliberate—and successful—strategy of bringing Latino immigrant workers and African Americans into political coalition with each other. And in 2012, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rep. John Lewis, and Alabama’s black leaders played a pivotal role in the re-creation of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery—now with resistance to the state’s anti-immigrant state legislation as its rallying cry. A survivor of the 1965 march’s “Bloody Sunday” assault by state troopers, Lewis used his moral authority to declare, “We march today for what we did 47 years ago: for what is fair, what is right and for what is just.”

When Birmingham’s African American mayor, William Bell, declared earlier this year that his city would be a sanctuary for immigrants because, “our heritage dictates that we be a welcoming city to all,” his statement was years but not decades in the making. Plenty of other black-run municipalities have yet to echo his cry.

So in early 2017, we find ourselves in the middle of this story. Time will tell whether Trump’s election proves a key marker in black politicians’ evolution toward more vocal and durable support for immigrants’ rights across the U.S. South or the country as a whole.