Black Public Opinion and American Identity in the Twenty-First Century
Abstract and Keywords
As the concluding chapter of the work, this chapter revisits the central thesis of the book, which is the import of the context and constraints of white supremacy on black public opinion formation. Using immigration as a lens to better understand black opinion, the book argues that white supremacy is at the core of black public opinion formation; in this way, it is not an individual story about immigrants or immigration policy. My theory of conflicted nativism helps the reader to understand how and why blacks hold seemingly divergent opinions on the issue of immigration. I am able to show, however, that these opinions are not in conflict. Rather, blacks have distinct considerations as Americans that come from their unique position in the American racial hierarchy and the ways in which white supremacy structures how they navigate an array of political issues. The chapter concludes with a brief examination of border separations, which has animated much of the recent conversation in this policy arena.
OVER THE PRECEDING chapters of the book, I have shown the context and constraints of white supremacy on the formation of black public opinion. To this end, I use immigration as a lens to understand the divergent contours of black public opinion. This is particularly important because we, as scholars and laypersons, often limit consideration of black opinion to “black issues,” such as affirmative action or welfare. These are important issue areas to be sure, but there is not a lot of variation on these opinions. Moreover, because these issues have been so thoroughly “blackened” in the American mind, it is difficult to see what is new and/or interesting about black opinion formation (Hancock 2004). Immigration, however, comes with less of this perceptual baggage because, while I show black people have definite opinions about immigration, those opinions are not linear. Case in point, knowing how close black people feel to immigrants will not tell you whether black people also want to see the numbers of immigrants in the country increased. That is, black people are sympathetic to immigrants, but they are also not in favor of more open borders. And the truth is, no ethnic group favors open borders, and one’s status as a member of an ethnic group tells only a partial story about opinion formation (Abrajano and Singh 2009; Branton 2007). This ambivalence is interesting and is the puzzle I have explored in this book.
In this way, then, the book is not about how individual black people feel about immigrants or immigration policy. Rather, this politics of immigration is really about a politics of belonging. Overall, the goal of this book is to offer a tool for us as analysts interested in better understanding black (p.163) public opinion in the United States and why their opinions look the way they do. To that end, I offer my theory of conflicted nativism, which offers an accounting for how black identity creates a unique perspective on what it means to be American, and how that American identity becomes operational for black people in the domain of immigration.
Conflicted Nativism: Black Ambivalence and Immigration Politics
In the last half-century since the passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965) blacks have made tremendous strides in local, state, and federal politics. Increased mobilization efforts of blacks, as well as other racial and ethnic minorities, helped to elect Barack Obama in 2008. That same energy also had substantial influence on state and local midterm races around the United States in fall 2018, where an unprecedented number of women of color have been elected to the House of Representatives, statewide offices, local positions, and judicial seats. In this same period, an unprecedented number of immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America have made their presence felt in the United States. Because these communities are increasingly important, yet unstable, members of an array of political coalitions, increasing efforts to woo these voters have been documented on both the left and the right (Wong 2018). While there is much to be optimistic about in the political landscape given the political advancement of black people and the increased incorporation and visibility of immigrant populations, there is also reason to be apprehensive.
The main premise of this book is that using immigration as a cipher for understanding black public opinion gives us a way to understand their identity as Americans. I offer the theory of conflicted nativism to account for how black people internalize the lessons of white supremacy in such a way that makes them ambivalent about immigration. On the one hand, blacks believe in the right to self-determination and are more supportive of policies that allow for immigrant incorporation. On the other hand, blacks, as Americans, express reservations about the meaning of this immigration for their group and whether their group will be harmed as a result of these newcomers. By harm I mean blacks are concerned that immigrant groups’ inclusion will come at their expense. Thus, my theory of conflicted nativism attempts to explain how it could be that blacks, in some instances, favor more liberal policies on immigration, but may also (p.164) hold ideas about immigrant groups that seem intolerant on their face. While my theory builds on the conventional literature regarding blacks’ experiences as a marginalized group, I also highlight the ways in which resistance to white supremacy, in an effort to assert their American identity, makes it possible to hold both points of view. In order for me to study black public opinion I had to include an understanding of their perceptions of how race operates to limit the social and political options for people marked non-white. Because blacks have been at the forefront of challenging these practices, historical efforts to resist inequality are part of how their group forms opinions about an issue area, and also how they choose to navigate policy—hence, why there is no evidence that blacks, in general, organize to oppose immigrants, documented or otherwise. At the same time, blacks do have an operating American identity they use to process these issues. While their orientation to American identity is different given their status as a marginalized group, they do not necessarily want to see the numbers of immigrants to the United States increased or favor a more laissez-faire immigration regime.
Therefore, my theory of conflicted nativism explains how one could be pro-immigrant in one sense and less supportive of immigration in other scenarios. Conflicted nativism argues that blacks want to be able to access, and feel they should be able to access, certain advantages as Americans over any and all immigrant groups. At the same time, they are suspicious of efforts to “root out” or “crack down” on immigrants through more aggressive police-like tactics because, as I argue throughout the text, these practices are steeped in the very same racism their group has been resisting since they have been in this country. The logic that wants to deport immigrants and separate children from their parents rests on the same foundations that allow black women, men, and children to be shot by police in the street or in their homes.
Throughout the text, my argument has been that if one wants to understand black politics in this century, and immigration by extension, one has to understand the ways in which white supremacy functions in our society. The current political climate we are living through does not bode well for black people and immigrants. Under the Obama administration, a conservative majority of the Supreme Court created the conditions to undermine the voting rights blacks and other racial and ethnic groups fought so strenuously to secure. As a result, polling places are now used as political pawns; since the Shelby County ruling in 2013, nearly a (p.165) thousand polling places have been closed, mostly in black communities (Vasilogambros 2018).
At the same time, President Obama continued an ambitious schedule of deportations; this more draconian immigration regime has only ramped up under the Trump administration. While Barack Obama had a reputation for being a champion of liberal causes, he was also an advocate of Secure Communities. Secure Communities extended the reach of the federal government and made local police forces into quasi-immigration enforcement agents (Armenta 2017). This policy had particular ramifications for black immigrants who, by virtue of their skin color, were surveilled more often/had more engagements with the law enforcement community and were more likely to be detained and deported (Palmer 2017). As such, this policy made the need for sanctuary cities more critical. Sanctuary cities are localities that refused to comply with federal immigration authorities by not requiring, or reporting, the immigration status of those they encountered for low-level offenses. These sanctuary cities, some of them located in heavily black communities like Baltimore, the District of Columbia, Jackson, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, came into being even though these issues do not appear to be of major concern for most African Americans. Why does this happen?
As I argue throughout the book there is a way in which blacks, as Americans, do not weaponize their national identity to harm others. For sure, it may be the case that black Americans are not universally flattering in their assessments/beliefs about immigrants, but that is not a requirement for doing the right thing. As in the case of border separations, that immigrants find themselves in proximity to black people, who are sympathetic to their cause but also considering their status as Americans, demonstrates the “twoness” of black opinions on immigration.
For instance, in a June 2018 Harvard/Harris Poll, blacks ranked guns, race relations, and immigration as the top issues facing the country; school shootings were a close fourth-place choice. What is more, blacks were shown to be the most favorable to deferred action on deportation for children brought by their parents to the United States without authorization. They were also most favorable to allowing those currently residing in the country without documentation to apply for citizenship, rather than deporting those individuals. At the same time, blacks did not support the idea of more lax borders, and a scant majority favor erecting a physical or electronic border with Mexico. What is more, blacks most strongly disapprove of the way in which Donald Trump has handled the (p.166) issue of immigration. Using conflicted nativism, it is not incompatible to believe in creating a path to citizenship for individuals currently residing in the country without authorization and not wanting to see the numbers of immigrants coming to the United States increased, while being critical of the administration’s poor handling of these issues.
On Being Black and American
Throughout the text, one of the chief aims has been to emphasize the ways in which black people use the issue of immigration to accentuate their incomplete incorporation into the American body politic. This theme is recurrent across time, as seen in Chapters 3 and 4, and one blacks grapple with despite their attempts, both formally and informally, to become part of the fabric of American life.
In Chapter 1, I use historical and current events to prosecute the claim that you cannot understand black public opinion if you do not have a clear understanding of blacks’ unique experience in America. This history, I argue, provides the context for understanding the contours of black public opinion in the present. This is not because the lives of black people have stayed the same—there have been marked improvements since the Jim Crow period. Rather, the ways in which America has treated black Americans has been predictable despite black attempts to make gains in American society. To give you an idea, as blacks have made gains in the electoral arena there have been more attempts to circumvent their voting rights. These efforts were on full display in the 2018 midterm elections, where voter purges in key states, like Georgia and Indiana, fell disproportionately on black communities (Lopez 2018). This is not simply a hiccup in the application of the law or collateral damage to insure fraud-free elections; it is a calculated attempt to violently deny black voting rights without firing a single shot, employing a water hose, or calling out the dogs. It is the same kind of violence that allows black mothers to have their children torn from their arms for the crime of sitting on the floor. This type of violence is perpetrated by a society that does not see blacks as full citizens of the republic, but is rarely called out as such. Therefore, blacks are reasonably suspicious of whites and their politics. I argue one can see this in the domain of immigration, where blacks’ opinions are strong but are not necessarily about some allegiance to the sanctity of American character. While blacks subscribe to an American identity, they utilize that identity in a distinctive fashion to critique the status of their (p.167) own group. As such, their black identity operates as their superordinate identity, which they use to critique and expand the notion of what it means to be an American. In sum, black public opinion on immigration is a proxy for black feelings about whites, and for their disappointments about the continued denial of full citizenship for their community. In this way, immigration is instrumental to helping blacks articulate these unreconciled strivings.
Chapter 2 formalizes the arguments in Chapter 1 and sets forth my theory of conflicted nativism, which allows us to understand blacks’ complicated relationship to their American identity. This chapter employs the lessons from the literature in political science to lay out how blacks employ their national identity in order to claim privilege in a society where their incorporation is incomplete. Yet, this identity is only superficially related to nativist attitudes and is not accompanied by strong restrictionist impulses. This is because blacks view immigration restriction as a racist enterprise targeted primarily at people of color. Blacks, therefore, view their primary problem as white supremacy, which they feel impedes their upward mobility. Immigration, then, is not the “real” issue for blacks. Consequently, blacks do not prioritize or organize around the issue of immigration restriction.
The next chapter uses historical evidence to confirm the ideas set forth in Chapter 2. In particular, Chapter 3 demonstrates blacks’ deep engagement with immigration since the nineteenth century. In particular, this chapter highlights how blacks employed immigration as a strategy for liberation. Toward this end, blacks self-consciously applied terms like immigrant and refugee to their own group, given the repression they faced at the time. This chapter is significant because it demonstrates that so-called back to Africa movements were not simply black nationalist fantasies but were real efforts to define and realize a robust freedom for the first time. While the majority of free blacks chose to remain in the United States, that they engaged international immigration (in addition to domestic migration) as a tool of resistance is an underappreciated part of black political repertoires. Thus, when blacks first engaged emigration it was for their own sakes. Leaving America, and the debates that ensued, was part of a black activist tradition that sought black inclusion and political incorporation in a variety of forms (Gaines 2006). When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, #blaxit (black exit) began trending, where blacks contemplated what they would take with them if or when they divested from the United States. Of course, this was meant as a joke, but given the black tradition of (p.168) immigration, there was a veneer of truth there. Indeed, most black people have not left the country, but it remains a distinct possibility for some black people. While these particular issues are not explored in Chapter 5, this chapter does help us understand the contours of black thought with respect to race and immigration in the present. In particular, the subsequent chapter uses qualitative data to uncover the complicated ways that black frame these issues.
Chapter 5 uses “everyday talk” to appreciate how black people think through race, their citizenship, and immigration. Using Durham, North Carolina, as a case study, I find blacks use their group’s racial past to understand their present circumstances as members of a racial group and as individuals. In particular, my respondents are socialized to recognize the ways their blackness has come to represent a lesser status in an American context. When evaluating immigration and what it means for their group, they employ history as a way to frame what they see happening around them in the present. From their perspective, other groups are given privilege in American society, and their group’s status is devalued. Through the particularities of their experience, they realize the ways in which racial hierarchy systematically hurts blacks, which has little to do with immigrants as such. The presence of immigrants is a way to highlight the inequities of blacks’ status and the limits of their American citizenship in exerting privilege in society. 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 reinforce blacks’ subordinate status in American society.
An additional source of corroboration comes from an analysis of original quantitative data. Chapter 5 of the text focuses on empirically testing the core claims of the book. I find blacks have some superficially nativist attitudes but are not willing to galvanize around this issue. They do not contact their elected officials or perform other political actions regarding the issue of immigration. Those blacks who view themselves as “typical Americans” exhibit more nativist attitudes, but being “proud Americans” dampens this nativist bent in their attitudes. This suggests that being a “patriot” does not necessarily mean that one will become more xenophobic toward immigrants. Moreover, blacks feel more warmly to all immigrant groups than they do to other whites, and view themselves as having more in common with Latinos. Still, blacks support the idea of more border security, but only about 40 percent are willing to write a letter to their representative regarding documented/undocumented immigration. Taken (p.169) together, these findings suggest blacks have divergent attitudes about immigration without distinction to whether immigrants are in the country with or without documentation. What is more, for whatever opinions they have about immigration, they are unwilling to act upon these beliefs. Blacks are not offended by immigrants despite their somewhat nativist beliefs. In short, immigration is not a salient issue for blacks, and they do not feel as protectionist about their American identity as has been documented with whites (Branton, Cassese, Jones, and Westerland 2011; Kinder and Kam 2010; Udani and Kimball 2018).
Where Do We Go from Here?
The summer of 2018 witnessed the brutal separation of children and families along the Mexican border. While the policy was rightfully called out as a cruel interpretation of America’s “zero tolerance” policy toward unauthorized border crossings, the practice of separating children and parents has been an American practice perfected over 400 years. Whether separating enslaved parents from their children in preparation for sale; Native American parents from their children to place them in boarding schools to “civilize” them; or the orphan train movement that took the children of the needy and destitute, many of them immigrants, and resettled them in orphanages across the country, America has never been sentimental about maintaining the sanctity of “family” for those deemed to be outsiders in the American body politic. The trauma of this practice was deeply felt and unfortunately all too well understood by the fractured communities still reeling from centuries of these types of processes. Despite court rulings that pronounced this practice at the Mexican border illegal and that have demanded the immediate reunification of these families, this government insists the means of family separation was justified by the end of border security.
This policy represented a full-circle moment that also made us confront another set of truths. Of the approximately 11 million undocumented people in the United States, roughly 600,000 are black; by comparison, there are nearly 800,000 Latino undocumented people (Krogstad 2017; Zong, Batalova, and Hallock 2018). What is more, black immigrants are more likely to face detention and deportation than any other group (Palmer 2017). The same criminal justice system that unjustly targets, hyper-surveils, jails, and imprisons African Americans also injures groups in proximity to them, most immediately black immigrants, but also has (p.170) the potential power to hurt those marked as “un-American” or somehow suspected of being “other.”
In a Quinnipiac University poll released June 2018, blacks were the most opposed to family separation and deportations of those in the country without documentation of any other group. Why this is the case I cannot say for certain, but the lessons of this text offer insights that can help us make inferences about these findings. What I have argued throughout this text is that immigration, even when it is inconvenient for black people, is about justice and doing the right thing even when it may cost their group. Not because black people are altruistic but because, as a group, they know the dangers of white supremacy. The position of blacks in American society is not simply about individual racist choices; it also the result of white supremacy. White supremacy is the set of racist practices, policies, and the unfair application of the law to groups deemed non-white. This neither means every individual white person benefits in the same way from white supremacy nor does it mean that every non-white person is poor or downtrodden. What it does mean, however, is that people racially identify as white, or near white; benefit from white supremacy whether economically, socially, politically, or psychically; and they do not have to do anything to reap these benefits (Mills 1997).
To illustrate, black people find themselves in poorer communities irrespective of their salaries, because of choices made by insurance companies and realtors’ organizations that routinely undervalue their neighborhoods. This so-called “segregation tax” is not a passive relic of bygone eras but is happening right now. As a consequence of these practices, it is more difficult for black communities to build intergenerational wealth; home ownership was considered the chief way to build this kind of wealth until the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 that was felt most acutely in black and other minority communities (Shapiro 2006). While there are black people who are legitimately below the poverty line, black people regardless of class are, and have been, kept poorer because of the cumulative nature of federal, state, and local housing statutes, tax policies, and valuation practices (Rothstein 2017). This has been a constant theme in black life, and it is deliberate whether or not the intent was racist. What happens in housing policy is but a symptom; we see similar manifestations of this type of nonracial policy with racist outcomes in the areas of criminal justice and voting rights, for example. The root cause of these outcomes is white supremacy, which is largely invisible because of the ways it has been normalized in our society.
(p.171) If I have done my job, the insights gleaned from this book will help the reader to move from the particularities of immigration to understanding the broader context and applicability of black opinion formation. I argue that white supremacy is one of the necessary ways in which we must understand black public opinion. Black people are not born “black” in the biological sense, but they become black through cumulative experiences they have encountered as individuals and as a group. Interactions with whites are part and parcel of their story. Black people, by virtue of demographics and racial status, do not have the privilege of avoiding interactions with white people. What does this mean? Generally speaking, black people, even when living in all- or mostly-black enclaves, have to engage whites where they work, shop, or socialize. Even if they do not have direct experiences with whites, any television program, commercial, or other television transmission they encounter will feature a white person. Even Black Entertainment Television (BET), the favorite bugaboo of whites who believe in “reverse racism,” is not a black-owned entity any longer. If black people want a car or mortgage loan, they only have 22 options if they want to give their business to a black-owned bank; the already small number of black-owned banks decreased further in the wake of the Great Recession (2007–2009). At their height, from 1888 to 1934, there were 130 black-owned banking institutions. Similarly, there are less than 50 grocery stores and farms owned by blacks. Thus, in most of life’s activities from eating to entertainment, black people cannot avoid whiteness. All of this is to drive home the larger context of black opinion in this book. In sum, if you want to understand black opinion, it cannot be done in isolation from white supremacy. To the extent that black opinions are the collection of their experiences, then whiteness must be part of that conversation.
The evidence in this book focuses on historical, qualitative, and empirical data in an effort to contextualize black public opinion. While we assume we know black people, I chose to use immigration, an issue area not commonly associated with black people, and these different methodological approaches to provide a broader picture of black public opinion. In so doing, this book takes for granted that black opinions are the result of historical and contemporary forces that shape the way they see their group, outsiders, and the nation. By doing so, this book demonstrates blacks’ deep engagements with the issue of immigration in an effort to understand their individual and group’s investment in the American project. Immigration is part of an iterative process of defining what it means (p.172) to be black in America in the twenty-first century, and how that informs how blacks formulate their opinions about the world. As a result of the evolution in blacks’ lives from slavery to freedom, the meaning of American and immigrant have changed for their group. Nonetheless, the social meanings of blackness, Americanness, and immigrant have remained relatively steady. This is not a path-dependent argument, meaning one does not travel a straight line from the nineteenth century to the present. Rather, this book argues that one cannot understand black public opinion on immigration, or any other topic, without considering the particularities of this group’s political incorporation. This is not to paint black people as saints or people without agency. Instead, this book attempts to show black people as fully human. Black people, like other people, are the sum total of their experiences as individuals and as a group. This book neither speaks for all black people nor does it attempt to explain the litany of black opinions. What it does do, however, is demonstrate the complexity of black opinions vis-á-vis their experience as Americans. By doing so, my intention is to demonstrate the myriad ways in which blacks use a range of political issues to express a particular type of American identity.