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9 Risk Avoidance and Transfer

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.[1] 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.

  1. Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 177–78.


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