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May 17, 2005

Not Even Blacks

Once upon a time in America, in order to be someone of note and substance to be quoted in major newspapers on issues which might be of concern to blackfolks, you had to be a labor leader like A. Phillip Randolph. Today I have come to a realization why that isn't necessary. Mexican President Vicente Fox provides an example.

You see what everybody realizes is that African Americans have made dramatic progress over the past generation. People change slowly, but blackfolks have changed quickly. Just like it's hard to believe that most everybody now has a cell phone, whereas 20 years ago only the wealthiest among us did; it's hard to believe that blackfolks go whereever they please and do whatever they want. Just like your mother, despite the ubiquity if Linux, still can't manage to upgrade from Windows 95, lots of people here and around the world cannot manage to upgrade their racial programming. This doesn't provide a real barrier to blacks of substance and ability so much as it provides a permanent sense of dumbfounded astonishment in the American media, and therefore the minds of the world.

Imagine that you are your old bigoted parents. You would look at a black man like me - six figure salary, $600 cellphone (Treo 650), black Hollywood suit, shaved head and crisp diction - like some kind of amazing phenomenon. I'm sitting in first class on the plane talking to my business partner how we just blew their minds at Boeing. This to you, in your parents' mindset, would generate an incredible sense of jaw drop. I meet your eyes with no sense of the ethics which used to dominate American social life. I am as oblivious to your ignorance as a Sony PSP is to a phone booth with a dial phone.

And so it is with a good number of journalists and observers who have decided to be more comfortable with their own old racial programming. They say that they don't need to be up on the latest version, unaware of what they are missing. Even when you hand them an update, they fumble with the options and end up confused and frustrated. They admit that their life and worldview doesn't need all the new features. They don't see themselves as broken, just a little old-fashioned. Besides, everyone is backwards compatible with old racial programming. We all can pulse dial. We can still believe that a blackface charicature is a horrific insult worthy of national attention. We can still believe that some anonymous black criminal who gets shot by white cops ought to be national news. We can still believe that it's a goddam shame that black men work on trash trucks, just like the same old stereotype that Sammy Davis put up with in the original Ocean's Eleven.

So when Vicente Fox said: "There's no doubt that the Mexican men and women _ full of dignity, willpower and a capacity for work _ are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States," we in the blogosphere are forced to remember that one four letter word in this context must surely insult black progress.

Boo hoo.

Multiculturalism is supposed to awake us to the understanding of where ethnic traditions come from. Yet many liberal takes on it try to make it modernist and anti-modernist at the same time. On the one hand, they would have us respect the great traditions of an ancient culture, say the ability to use blowdarts to catch eels in the Amazon rainforest. On the other hand they would have us feel some great loss if children of that tribe were to wear sweatshirts from USC or Nike track shoes. It is this same contradiction that would have us worry that Shanequa can't get a job as a legal secretary on K Street. Sooner or later people, we're going to have to decide whether or not to upgrade our racial programming. We're either going to be modern and have the same standards of judgement for everyone, or we're going to be anti-modern and assert nonsense like "It's a Shi'ite thing, you can't understand."

When it comes to African Americans, we live with this racially essentialist dualism, and of course as you might expect, I grumble about how some of y'all manage to live like that. Still I understand what must be going through those heads, the astonishment that so many upgrades have taken place even though the old ideas still work.

I'll only add one more dimension to the analogy. It has to do with a kid from a small town, or since this is Star Wars week, a small planet. A lot of Americans skip the bonds of small town gravity and migrate successfully up the ladder of mobility. Sometimes they go back to that small town to find that their old running buddies are taking pride that they are a shift manager in the ball point pen factory. We all have to be reminded, especially those of us elites, that there's dignity in all kinds of work we would never condescend to perform. You couldn't pay me enough to retrain my mind to have the kind of focus that the short Mexican woman has at LAX as she takes her pole and erases the scuff marks off the marble floors. Only four year scholarships for my three kids would get me back in housepainting gear. My point is that all of us are from somewhere but half of us have gone elsewhere. The rich don't all stay rich and the poor don't all stay poor. Mexicans and blacks are no exception.

I don't like the fact that some folks have refused to upgrade their racial programming and still think that the majority of blacks' ambition is to compete for the same jobs as non-English speaking immigrants to America. I don't like the fact that some folks can't divest themselves of the stereotype that blacks ought to be the ones to take downscale labor. But neither of those facts get me all bent out of shape. It's also true, that blacks have had those historical struggles in our own past. There was a time when A. Phillip Randolph was our own Ceasar Chavez, and the railroad stations were for blacks what today's airports are for many Mexicans. So even with our proper modernist sensibilities, we need to recognize that some things, like the building of economic, intellectual, social and political capital, take time.

African Americans are still moving forward, many of us at different paces, as are Mexican Americans. Here in Los Angeles, I bear happy witness to that progress. Whether or not observers of these matters want to upgrade their racial software and screw their jaws shut, people from both groups are going to pursue their ambitions. Depsite the difficulties for the straight stories to emerge, the people will. Maybe some journalists ought to think about who's willing to do their jobs for less.

Others Observe:

His comments however have opened the door, slightly, to discussing illegal immigration and how it affects African-Americans. This is a taboo subject mostly because in the United States real class analysis has been absent among the left with many viewing societal issues through a lens of 'politically correct' notions about race. It also doesn't help that those most affected by illegal immigration are those with the least amount of voice in our society.

Dead right. But that's why I emphasize the Old School black opinion from an elitist position and never neglect class over here at Cobb. I'm willing to say and always have, that our reaction to racist insult needn't be ignorant of class. I think everybody should be aware of the fact that Jackson isn't truly a labor leader. Perhaps he ought to be, why is he not?

David Card via Tyler Cowen

On the question of assimilation, the success of the U.S.-born children of immigrants is a key yardstick. By this metric, post-1965 immigrants are doing reasonably well: second generation sons and daughters have higher education and wages than the children of natives. Even children of the least educated immigrant origin groups have closed most of the education gap with the children of natives.

I've been talking about the internal Second World. I'm willing to suggest that Mexican immigrants have a bit more entrepreneurial in the cities precisely because of a lack of integrational social capital. Whereas many blacks took the path of civil service in the post Civil-Rights era, the doors open here in Los Angeles are notably in the construction trades. Lots of pickup trucks and overalls, and even though it goes down to the day labor at the Home Depot, maybe the reasons blacks aren't getting picked up is because Mexican shift bosses are doing a lot of the picking up. If you're not bilingual on building sites and in kitchens in California, you're not skilled.

Bomani Jones says

But some people just have to do it. It's gotta be done, and rent has to be paid, which draws a lot of people into work that could easily be called dehumanizing...save for the fact that little is as dehumanizing as homelessness. Mexicans are just disproportionately chosen to do those gigs. Maybe black folks are unwilling to do those things--and history has shown black folks have a need for sustinence that has made us willing to do a lot of subhuman shit--and I wouldn't blame anyone for being unwilling to do a lot of jobs if they're able to find some other way to eat.

Yeah here in the Southwest, but not so much in the South. Blacks were still running kitchens in New Orleans when I was there this spring. We'll see how well Mexicans do in other states. So far, so so.

Posted by mbowen at May 17, 2005 10:09 AM

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In journalism school in the late 70's, I did an analysis of the Atlanta Constitution (before its JOA with the Journal). In a week's worth of papers, in a city that was more than 50% black, there was no significant news from the black community, and no photographs of black people.

I think things are a little better in Atlanta now. But Vicente Fox's remarks don't surprise me one bit. At the risk of broad-brushing, leaders outside our country don't have a clue of what America is about.

Posted by: Scott Ferguson at May 17, 2005 12:08 PM

I don't think they know what to look for.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 17, 2005 12:22 PM

I don't think Fox even realized his comments would be taken as offensive when he said them. He understands the historic trend of immigrants in this country attaining upward mobility on the backs of Blacks. Currently in our communities, the Koreans sell us our beauty supplies, Arabs own the convenience stores and gas stations, and the Indians own the cheap "hourly" hotels. If not for Native Americans, we would be at the bottom of the economic totem pole.

Posted by: New Leadership at May 17, 2005 04:11 PM

Every year thousands of African Americans leave their homes to go to college. None of those ambitious students want to own beauty supply stores, convenience stores, gas stations, or motels. Are you suggesting there is something wrong with that ambition?

This is the same argument we heard about liquor stores in the wake of the LA riots. Black college students don't want to go back to the ghetto and run the liquor store, so I don't see the value of that complaint anywhere.

The reason Fox's complaint is offensive is because it is offensive to middle class black Americans with political and cultural clout in the mainstream, not because it is offensive to poor blacks in the ghetto. Poor blacks in the ghetto don't even read blogs or any of the news sources that we're discussing today, and unless Tom Joiner talked about it on the radio, they wouldn't even know or care.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 17, 2005 04:56 PM

I wrote about this on vision circle while you were away. I don't really think it is all that offensive. But it was a tactical mistake. The jobs Mexicans do are jobs few blacks would do...but the anti-immigration lobby is largely anti-black as well. In as much as his comments offended the civil rights establishment (I am middle class I guess, and I am not offended) he needs to think a bit more before he speaks.

Posted by: Lester Spence [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 17, 2005 05:22 PM

Yes, the Civil Rights Esbablishment. They're all middle class, overly political and tend to make noise. They know all the white synchophants who remain in awe of black progress. They are sensitive to a fault and they are squandering their political clout in parsing sentences that ultimately mean nothing.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 17, 2005 06:01 PM

Look, I'm way beyond my parents and about 98% of the rest of my family. My ire about the comments come from the fact that I'm related to, or friends of, people who are coming head on with the effects of illegal immigration in their drive to increase their income.

About 12% of Blacks have a college degree. About 25% of whites have a college degree. Most of both races don't, so chances are whites and Blacks are going to go head to head with Latinos. In my area, it's not just lawn care but construction jobs. Two of my friends have come face to face with illegal immigration in that area.

Black construction companies are now competing with other construction companies that hire illegals.

You seem to be missing that fact that progress comes in many forms, with one form being "blue collar" workers providing a stable home for their children who then become "white collar" workers.

That's where I'm coming from.

Posted by: DarkStar at May 17, 2005 06:25 PM

I don't see why African Americans are or should be immune to competition from anywhere. If English is an advantage, get a job where English is an advantage. If not, sweat it out with the immigrants. Thats your only choice.

My gripe with illegal immigration comes from the legislative default. We've elected a bunch of whiners who can't really come up with a better reason to open or close the border than the most vulgar. It doesn't change the fact that the law is incomplete and selectively enforced. But the endgame is global competition and everybody knows it. In that regard, it doesn't really matter what law says: these people are your competition. And as long as they keep coming, the labor market is going to keep adjusting.

I say drop the bottom out of the minimum wage and let's see how well America does with favelas. After the TB epidemic perhaps legislators will come with the courage to fix the safety net permanently. In the meantime, the Minutemen are just as correct as everybody else. We have a lawless situation here.

Thankfully, the Mexicans themselves are good enough to not cause an inordinate set of problems vis a vis Anti-Americanism, MC13 notwithstanding. I'm just fine with millions more. But I also think it should be reciprocal. How about we do some gentrification, eh?

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 17, 2005 08:22 PM