Thoughts on New Directions for Africana Studies
Lee D. Baker, Duke University
It is springtime in North Carolina. Second only to Texas, North Carolina has more miles of state-maintained highways than any other state in the Union—each mile is well maintained. In mid-April, I was driving west on I-40 between Raleigh and Durham; it was bright, sunny, and 69 degrees. Various work crews were out along the highway—picking up litter, doing construction, mowing medians, and planting flowers. As traffic slowed along a narrow strip near Research Triangle Park, I noticed two crews; each crew comprised about a dozen men. They were opposite each other on different sides of the highway. I distinctly remember how the Day-Glo vest each man wore paled in comparison to the pockets of brilliant violet and red flowers tucked in between the equally bright-white flowers of the elegant dogwoods that bespeckle that particular stand of loblolly pines. Each crew was working very hard, each crew was working for the state of North Carolina; one crew was all Black, the other was all Latino. One crew had North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDT) emblazoned across their vests with bold reflective lettering; the other crew had “Inmate” stamped across their vests. Chances are members of the Latino crew were immigrant day laborers that a contractor picked up that morning from the throng of young men who mill around the local Lowe’s Home Improvement store. And, if that was the case, not one of those hardworking men on either side of the highway had legal rights afforded to employees in the state of North Carolina, and each man was being exploited and sorely underpaid. Innocent or guilty, documented or undocumented, each man labored under a pall of criminality where their status as illegal or convict forced them to keep North Carolina highways beautiful. In some way, this tale of two crews has helped me to frame the immigration debate that has been roiling Congress, prompting protests en masse, and forcing everyone throughout the Americas to take stock of the tangled issues that impede comprehensive immigration reform.
Perhaps it is just the current round of partisan politics, but the issue of US immigration, legal or otherwise, seems like one area that needs reasoned and systematic analysis by scholars of Africana Studies. Topics such as education and taxation, job creation and competition, and fair housing and health care, should be systematically explored with pointed analysis and rigorous methods. At the same time, new and old forms of racism, assimilation and acculturation, and new constructions of race should be carefully scrutinized and unpacked with sophisticated theory and nuanced descriptions. Personally, I am fairly ambivalent about the annual 700,000 or more undocumented people from Latin America that flow across the US border to find jobs, start families, and stake their claim on the American Dream.
I find myself cringing at the prospect of agreeing with President Bush, who argues that we need a humane and respectful policy to address the needs of poor and exploited workers who risk everything to come and work in the United States. I am sympathetic to the claim that “we did not cross the borders, the borders crossed us” and impressed by early La Raza leaders, like Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez, who organized the Chicano contingent for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in Washington. I don’t trust, however, the neo-liberal rational choice theorists who somehow come off as liberal reformers and believe that the market will drive fair wages and efficiently direct the flow of poor and exploited workers to the chicken and hog processing plants in North Carolina, the manicured lawns of the Hamptons, and the crop fields of the San Joaquin Valley. They are cast as laborers who simply fill a need, keeping wages down, prices low, and the American economy humming along. It seems like a naked play for cheap labor that is vulnerable, exploited, and simply a cog in the capitalist machine: a cog that does not get workmen’s compensation, cannot withdraw from Social Security, and does not have access to reasonable health care. This neoliberal liberalism, to me, smacks of the happy Negro whose benevolent slaver tried to explain that they are better off here, enslaved, than free in their own country. I am equally loath to write, speak, or teach about limiting Latino immigration, increasing border security, or “cracking down” on illegal aliens. The xenophobia and indeed racism inherent with this approach is not an option. The debate has thus been cast in either/or terms; it seems like one must support a neoliberal guest worker program and an eventual bid for citizenship, or one must support a racist and xenophobic position that closes the borders. The batten-down-the-hatches approach makes felons out of trustworthy people who are just trying to make an honest living from a dishonest wage, while the guest worker program institutionalizes a second class of non-citizens, whose only hope is to get in the back of the line and wish for that day they might get their bid for citizenship.
Immigration to the United States is a formula for success that has worked for years, but seemingly it was only available to the millions that made up the storied huddled masses. It is worth repeating Emma Lazarus’s famous poem that is graven in the stone base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest‑tossed, to me.”
For a century, these famous lines served as an unofficial immigration policy. Seared in the minds of many a grade school pupil, the mantra informs an open borders policy and underscores the value immigrants have played in making the United States a strong and diverse nation. If one simply replaces teeming shore with borders, or turns to the shores of Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, the tone and affect of the poem change. When Black and brown people come, American racism precludes the same welcoming embrace for the “wretched refuse,” “homeless,” and “tempest-tossed.”
By the year 2050, so-called racialized minorities will be the majority in the United States, and whites will once again be the minority — so goes the rhetoric of everyone from advertisers to demographers. However, if we look at countries within the African Diaspora, we may be able to identify that this will not occur in the way most people predict. I think this is where scholars in Africana Studies, who study the process of racialization, can make an important contribution to the so-called immigration debate.
In a forthcoming article in Transforming Anthropology, Alisse Waterston writes a provocative article entitled “Are Latinos Becoming ‘White’ Folk? And What that Still Says about Race in America.” She describes a process that many scholars are familiar with in South Africa, Surinam, Trinidad, Brazil, and indeed Florida where members of a one-time racialized minority group emerge as not-quite white, and begin to function as virtually white or as a buffer race between whites and African peoples, who suffer the brunt of racism and exploitation at the bottom of the racial and class hierarchy. She explains how advertising agencies and marketers employ the euphemisms “English oriented” and “Spanish preferred” to split the so-called Latino market, but she argues that these are simply color and class coded signifiers. Employing Brodkin’s notion that an “unholy trinity of corporations, the state, and monopolistic media produces and reproduces patterns and practices of whiteness with dreadful predictability,” Waterston reminds readers that the media, including advertisers, have long played an important role in the construction of race, and these color and class inflected monikers might portend the expansion of the borders and boundaries of whiteness. The result is a new model minority with class mobility—English-oriented Latinos—who will have access to the wages of whiteness, while the Spanish-preferred will emerge as something like a model minority with class immobility. The pattern in Florida with the whitening of the pre-Marial boat lift Cubans will extend its reach from Florida to Texas and California; for that matter, it will extend to any locale where the light and often white Latino professional class—deemed “English oriented”—assimilates to an expanding and flexible racial category of whiteness. It is a scenario where ideas about la familia merge with family values, a strong work ethic complements the so-called Protestant work ethic, and conservative Catholicism merges with the values of pro-life Protestants. More importantly, it is a scenario that leverages the century-long inertia of incorporating Irish, Italian, Jewish, and other racialized minorities into the specter of whiteness. The Republican Party, at least, hopes this will result in more voters who favor the likes of Alberto Gonzales and fewer voters who favor the likes of Antonio R. Villaraigosa.
Access to the wages of whiteness is one thing; access to just plain wages is another. The so-called Spanish preferred Latinos—usually darker, poorer, and more closely tied to their indigeneity—are also playing an interesting role in shifting labor markets. Although some pundits are quick to say that undocumented workers take the jobs no other Americans want, I cannot help but juxtapose their rhetoric with those two hardworking work crews I witnessed on that highway. Jobs no one wants? Whenever I hear this, I think of the grim prospects of undereducated Black men between twenty and thirty-nine, which have been underscored in a spate of recent books: Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men by Peter Edelman, Harry Holzer, and Paul Offner; Black Males Left Behind by Ronald B. Mincy; and Punishment and Inequality in America by Bruce Western. Each author paints a grisly picture of Black men in America and points to the usual suspects — jobs, education, and incarceration. I think what also needs to be addressed is the fact that there is a perception that the so-called “Spanish-preferred” and often undocumented workers are better workers who will work for less money than their Black peers. I don’t need to recall the specifics and statistics, but we need sophisticated, politically responsible research that explores how employment opportunities are provided to some while being stripped from others. The concept of risk seems important because employers risk committing a crime by hiring undocumented workers because they do not want to risk hiring anyone who they believe might commit a crime.
Brodkin, Karen.1994. How Jews became white folks and what that says about race in America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
- Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 177–78. ↵