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American While BlackAfrican Americans, Immigration, and the Limits of Citizenship$

Niambi Michele Carter

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190053550

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190053550.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 27 October 2020



(p.1) Introduction
American While Black

Niambi Michele Carter

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Using a personal anecdote to set the stage, the author introduces the fundamental argument of the book, which is that black people respond to the “threat” of immigration by critiquing a system of white supremacy that excludes blacks through the exploitation of other groups. In particular the book examines the ways in which blacks use immigration as a lens to evaluate their own status as citizens. In other words, as blacks think about what immigration means for the nation, they are also thinking about what it means for their group. The context within which they look at immigration is through their own group’s racial experience, which has often found blacks struggling for belonging in the American body politic because of white supremacy.

Keywords:   labor, immigration, blacks, North Carolina, threat

I CAME TO this project while a graduate student in Durham, North Carolina. At that time, the city of Durham, and the state of North Carolina, was experiencing increasing waves of immigration primarily from Mexico and other parts of South America. Much of the conversation around this “new immigration” largely focused on the dislocations between blacks and Latinos in Durham. At the time, conflict was the dominant frame used to understand the racial dynamics between these groups. This seemed wrong to me, however. I knew black people. More importantly, I listened to black people talk. My maternal family is from Warrenton, North Carolina. Warrenton is a town of less than 1,000 people that remains defined as racially black and white. Despite the demographic changes happening in that area, you must understand what happened between blacks and whites, first. My family, like so many others, is not far removed from Jim Crow and experienced the stresses and strains of old fashioned racism and the more genteel racial segregation that persists because of the racial orders of prior generations.

Being entrepreneurs has been one of the ways black people have maintained some semblance of independence from the vagaries of white supremacy. While my grandfather was a sharecropper until he was middle-aged, my uncle exhibited an independent streak and used his talent as a brick mason to work for his own firm. That firm was able to employ my other uncles, at different times, who are talented masons in their own right. As skilled craftsmen, my uncles were able to circumvent some of the workplace racism prevalent in their day. One evening as a graduate student, while visiting family, I overheard my uncle talking about a construction contract he bid on. He did not think his bid would be successful because other companies (read white) would come in cheaper because, in (p.2) his words, “they hire Mexicans.” This was not a jab at Mexicans, but an acknowledgment that he understood “how white people do.” What “white people do” in this context is hire the cheapest labor they can find. In this case, it was newly arriving Latino immigrants. He said this with neither anger nor bitterness, but with a cold understanding of how race works. When you are black, this means that whites will opt for the cheapest labor source, not necessarily the better labor source. Far too often, “better” meant the most easily exploited. What had largely been a decision about expedience and a firm’s bottom line, had morphed into a popular, racialized stereotype about Latino willingness to “work hard”; a sentiment commonly held by blacks and whites (Mindiola, Niemann, and Rodriguez 2003; National Hispanic Media Coalition 2012). Unfortunately, the flip side of this stereotype has the effect of painting black people, and even less advantaged whites, as “lazy” or unwilling to work hard by contrast. What was essentially a fiscal choice was racialized into a conversation about a group’s diligence and individual drive. My uncle, a brick mason, was very aware of these realities, and this is what he was expressing in his few words. White firms used the worst caricatures of black people to justify their exploitation of immigrant laborers. This type of understanding of race and its nuances, as highlighted by the issue of immigration, is what I explore in this book.

My fundamental argument in this book is that black people respond to the “threat” of immigration by critiquing the system of white supremacy that excludes blacks through the exploitation of other groups. This means that, in the realm of labor, blacks are critiquing the practices that create imperatives for cheap labor—not the laborers. This book is not about labor relations, however. This book is about the ways in which blacks use immigration as a lens to evaluate their status as citizens. Thus, this project is essentially one of place-making. As blacks are thinking about what immigration means for the nation, they are thinking about what it means for their group. The only way this issue is given context is through their own group’s racial experience, which has often found blacks struggling for belonging in the American body politic because of the white supremacy.

The goal of this book is to use immigration as a way to understand black people’s opinions about race and their place in the American political landscape. It is not to say what black people ought to feel like. Rather, it is a way to understand why black people, when confronted with an issue like immigration, feel ambivalent about it. In order to understand their opinions, it is necessary to think about their relationship to white (p.3) supremacy, how white supremacy structures the ways in which they receive information about immigration, and how this influences their political attitudes. Throughout this book, my primary consideration is blacks and how they understand their plight, in order to complicate the ways in which we talk about black people and their opinions. More importantly, while this work is ultimately a critique of the ways in which white supremacy structures the nature of intergroup relationships, the foil here is not white people. This is a significant intervention. Whites are not a comparison group; they are not a primary referent. In other words, white supremacy is not equal to white people. White supremacy is the system that favors white people and structures all of our life chances according to skin color, gender expression, sexuality, nationality, religion, and the like. This means all of us can participate in perpetuating the system of white supremacy regardless of whether that system benefits us individually or whether we participate in or believe in racist practice.

It would be facile to say black people would have ill-feeling toward immigrants, because that is what white people demonstrate (Banks 2016). But what my uncle said about “how white people do” demonstrated a knowledge of white supremacy at work. And that white supremacy is about reinforcing the racial hierarchy that my uncles, and so many other black people, have been resisting for centuries. By listening to black people, I came to understand that black people respond differently to the same stimulus (i.e., immigration). While this should be taken for granted, it is not (Harris-Lacewell 2004). The construction of white supremacy, and its fixation on the subordination of black people and others who cannot access whiteness, creates different constraints that structure black responses to immigration.

Consequently, whites are not only not a comparison groups to blacks in this book; they probably should not be in other spheres, either. A comparison does not make sense given the disparate experiences these groups have had in the United States. Recognizing and mining this difference is fundamental to my argument in this book. As Allport said, “the same fire that melts the butter hardens the egg” (in Hergenhahn, Cramer, and Olson 2002: 159). In this context, black people respond to the “fire” of immigration by critiquing the system that valorizes immigrants relative to their group, not the immigrants themselves. Whites, on the other hand, have often hardened their positions on immigration as the “threat” of these newcomers becomes more salient. This is not to suggest blacks are good and whites are bad. Rather, it is to understand that opinions are not (p.4) homogeneous, and I contend if we want to understand black opinion then we need to theorize about black people in a way that gives priority to black experiences. We can best do this by listening to what black people have to say for themselves.

This book is dedicated to exploring the “twoness” of black public opinion on immigration. On the one hand, there is a deep commitment in black politics to the right of self-determination. The belief in individual and group autonomy has been part and parcel of black political struggle in the United States. The belief that group well-being is concomitant to individual well-being is long-standing and well documented in the political writings and public opinion of black people (Cohen 1999; Dawson 1994b). On the other hand, while blacks are generally not in favor of deportation as a solution to immigration, they are sensitive to the ways in which immigrants are used against them. While blacks generally do not want to see immigrants and their families harmed, they also seek to avoid the inevitable comparisons that arise from their presence. The presence of immigrants makes the anti-blackness of this nation clearer, as blacks are often lambasted for not working hard enough, not trying hard enough, or for whining about racial discrimination relative to this group of newcomers. In the American racial hierarchy, immigrants are “good” because of their values and blacks are “bad” because of their lack of values. The immigrant in this formulation becomes a straw man that leaves the foundational investment in white supremacy untouched.

My goals with this book, therefore, are to engage black people in their own words, on their own terms, to understand how their experiences influence their understanding of and encounters with immigration. The issue of immigration illuminates the ways in which black people see power circulating within and without their communities. Thus, a significant aspect of this work is to demonstrate that immigration is a “black issue.” More importantly the book shows that immigration is an important issue about which black people have lots of opinions, and that can help us understand black politics more generally. Moreover, the political science literature largely frames black opinion on immigration as a matter of interminority coalition or competition; I seek to enhance and broaden that conversation.

In order to do this, I argue, it is imperative that one understand white supremacy and the ways in which it structures the relationships between minority communities. In particular, when I look at black public opinion about immigration, it is not simply a matter of the usual tropes of immigrants “taking jobs” or receiving unearned benefits, though those (p.5) things exist; it is a matter of understanding the ways of white folks. If one is reading this book and wants to understand its main thrust it is this: white supremacy structures the political choices available to black people; consequently, in order to understand black opinion one has to understand the constraints of and resistance to white supremacy. If one does not understand white supremacy, one cannot hope to understand black politics. This is not to suggest blacks do not have political agency. They do. Yet as long as black people engage the American political system, the choices they can make for themselves and their communities are limited by these very same institutions.

While it should go without saying, black people are painfully aware of white supremacy and the ways it shows up in their lives. Most immediately, they often see it when immigrants are wielded as weapons against their communities. Of course, this is not because immigrants are doing this intentionally but because white supremacy gaslights black people, and others, into critiquing themselves and each other rather than focusing on its ill effects. This often looks like there is conflict between blacks and other minorities. What I aim to show is that conflict is not the only way to characterize the relationship. I aim to show that black resistance to immigration, where it may exist, is attitudinal only and is generally about blacks’ sense of self-preservation. Black people see advocacy for their community as essential to their survival. Thus, while I may not individually feel threatened by immigration there may be reason to suspect more vulnerable members of my community might feel threatened. Why? Because whites may favor immigrants over black people in hiring decisions, housing, and other social interactions. This is very different from blacks simply being intolerant of immigrants.

I offer this book as a way to generate more conversation about the future of black politics and open the range of issues that are considered part of the canon of black political interests. Immigration is one of those issues, and in the succeeding chapters I demonstrate that blacks have a wide-ranging set of attitudes on immigration generally, but rarely do they support repressive immigration policies or support candidates who promote policies like building walls. This is not necessarily because blacks love immigrants, but because of their recognition that the white supremacy that would build that wall is the same white supremacy that marks black protestors as “racial identity extremists.” Thus, as with all things, black opinion on immigration is complicated and does not fit neatly into a particular worldview. I characterize their opinions as “conflicted nativism,” (p.6) where they have very definite opinions about what makes one an American but do not subscribe to policies of immigrant exclusion. Finally, I think it is significant to look at the specific to get to the general. I focus a lot on what black people say in order to make sense of empirical data. It is necessary to utilize an indigenous understanding of black people in order to make sense of the statistical findings. By treating this issue holistically, it is my intention to give voice to the concerns that black people have about the health and well-being of their communities.

Outline of the Book

Chapter 1 gives the reader insight into the key ideas animating the text. In this chapter, I explore the ways in which black public opinion on immigrants has been misunderstood. I present a brief overview of how race informs black attitude formation, then a brief overview of black opinion on immigration. The major thrust of this chapter is to show the ways in which black experiences have informed their opinions on immigration. Using Chapter 2 as a foundation, I delineate the theoretical underpinnings of the text. Chapter 2 extends the discussion of black public opinion on immigration by focusing on the theoretical frame of conflicted nativism which animates much of the discussion in this book. Using blacks’ historical relationship to immigration, I argue their unique experience as outsider-citizens makes them deeply ambivalent about immigration. This conflicted nativism is largely a response to white racism rather than hostility to immigrants. The key elements of conflicted nativism are identified and addressed throughout the remaining chapters of the book.

Using historical documents, Chapter 3 presents a historical view of black opinion regarding immigration. This chapter focuses on the nineteenth century and blacks’ consideration of immigration as a viable political strategy for group betterment. The chief argument of this chapter is that immigration is very much a part of a black political agenda and early black engagements with immigration represented a resistance to black exclusion. Chapter 4 extends the discussion in Chapter 3 by detailing the ways in which collective memory informs contemporary black opinion. In this chapter, personal interviews are employed to connect history to contemporary black opinions on immigration. This chapter highlights the “everyday talk” blacks engage in regarding immigration. I find blacks use their past to understand present circumstances. In particular, this chapter (p.7) demonstrates how blacks use the particularities of their experience to understand the ways in which racial hierarchy systematically hurts blacks. Immigration is a way to highlight the inequities of blacks’ status. Through discourse I find blacks do not harbor major hostility toward immigrants. Rather, their discomfort is aimed at whites who seek to exploit others in an effort to harm blacks.

Chapter 5 uses survey data to test whether there is any empirical basis to the claims made in Chapters 3 and 4. Using a sample of 1,000 blacks from the Race and Nation Survey project, an original survey of 2,000 blacks and whites, I find blacks have some superficially nativist attitudes but are not willing to expend any political capital on the issue. Overall, blacks who view themselves as “typical Americans” exhibit more nativist attitudes, but being “proud Americans” dampens this nativist bent in their attitudes. Moreover, blacks feel more warmly toward all immigrant groups than they do to other whites, and view themselves as having more in common with Latinos. While blacks are willing to countenance a range of policies related to immigration, they remain unwilling to act on the issue. The findings in this chapter suggests blacks are not offended by immigrants despite their somewhat nativist beliefs. In short, immigration is not a salient issue for blacks, but white supremacy is.

In sum, this book is a beginning of a conversation rather than an ending. There is still much we do not understand about the nature of black politics. While blacks are treated as known quantities in American politics (i.e., they vote Democratic) there is still much we do not know about the range of issues on which they have opinions and what, if anything, those opinions mean for their political behavior. This book seeks to extend the conversation in black politics, racial and ethnic politics, interminority relations, and immigration by demonstrating the complicated, messy nature of public opinion. By exploring how blacks handle the issue of immigration in particular, I hope the book grounds the reader in the fact that black citizenship has been a long struggle and that the contemporary discourse on immigration opinion must take this into account if we are truly to understand what is going on.