Thursday, March 31, 2005

It's the complexity, stupid!

Happened to catch Lou Dobbs on the CNN evening news recently and one of his featured reports had to do with the issue of the displacement of service and construction workers by illegal immigrant labor. Such a difficult subject here in Richmond since the number of undocumented people is substantial in this community and rising daily.

I was reminded of a day some 3-4 years ago when -- in my role as field representative for a member of the state assembly -- I found myself sitting in a large discussion circle with representatives from various nonprofits and agencies, plus labor union members. It was a racially diverse group and one in which I normally felt in complete accord. The meeting was being held in Richmond's largest Spanish-speaking Catholic church. The pastor, Father Tony, was co-chair of the hosting organization. There was an interpreter present due to the number of Spanish-speakers in the meeting. We were gathered for a seminar on the subject of immigrant labor and the (then) upcoming march to be held in nearby Oakland as an element in the annual Cinco de Mayo parade and day-long celebration. Those taking the lead were members of a social action collaborative to which I was a founding member, plus the AFL-CIO acting on behalf of service workers.

I was increasingly uncomfortable as the morning wore on. I knew that the legislator for whom I worked would be solidly behind this cause and that I was pretty certain that she would expect me to support her views on the matter. In fact it was my obligation to do so. I was feeling more and more resistant as the morning wore on, and had to come up with some way to either give voice to my confusion -- or simply get up and leave. Neither course of action felt right, given my position.

When it became unbearable to continue to sit and stew -- I interrupted the agenda with this:

"I'm so schizophrenic on this matter that I'm feeling like I really need for all of you to help me sort out some of these doubts so that I can do my job. I feel as if I need two chairs to sit on -- one for the professional who is here to represent the state, and another for the Betty who sees the problem very differently from my boss, or, anyone else in this room, apparently." I continued to an uncomfortably hushed group, "I'm far more interested in the problem of displaced service workers than I am in the question of the rights of illegal immigrants!" Then I started to see black folks perk up and heads begin to bob in agreement -- though no one knew where this was going to take us. Not even I had any idea of what disastrous course I was taking, and that silent room suggested that I might be stepping out into the abyss without my bungee cord! I was confident enough of my standing in this group to risk candor. I then told the story of how dismayed I'd been recently to see on screen images of striking janitorial workers in San Francisco, 99% of whom were non-black in an industry that had at one time had been dominated by black folks. Where had they gone?

I told them how puzzled I was a couple of years earlier when my mother was a patient at a nursing home nearby where -- over a period of 3 months, every African American nurse's aide or registered nurse was systematically replaced by women from the Phillipines. Where had they gone?

The following day I drove from my satellite office in Richmond to our district office in Berkeley to catch my boss for some talk about the issue. Ordinarily we were so closely allied politically that there was little need to confer. This was different. I was far from clear on my own feelings about the matter -- couldn't stand to be thought of as either racist or politically incorrect. I felt myself far too sophisticated for such feelings. I was embarrassed. It was necessary to feel backed up by my office. And, in the event that we didn't see eye to eye on a matter as important as this one, then I'd have to make some decisions about whether I could adequately continue to fill this position at all with any sense of integrity. Important stuff.

After some polite listening my boss said the obvious, "...of course I support this action. These poor people have every right to employment. They're doing the work that no one else wants to do, and therefore are contributing positively to the economy."

I wasn't satisfied. My response was: "...I, and my black contemporaries, grew up as the children of service workers for the most part. I was a child and adolescent during the Jim Crow period, and my parents had little opportunity to enter any other job market due to racial practices of the times. Most of today's black leaders in my age group were supported by a generation of folks who were doing those jobs that no one else wanted to do. They were the red caps, the bellhops, the janitors and hotel maids, and the hospital aides and railroad porters, housekeepers and childcare workers, laborers on construction sites, etc. It was by their labor that my generation completed high school and began to enter the universities in significant enough numbers to begin to change the future for black folks everywhere."

She tried to reassure me that African Americans had moved on up since the economy had opened up to us, and that we no longer had to depend upon such low wage employment. This is an assumption that I found hard to justify in light of the desperation and hopelessness that I witnessed day after day in the course of doing the work.

What has happened to those displaced service workers over the past dozen or so years? There was little union organizing around to protect their industry or to organize on their behalf. What with the escalating cutbacks in the welfare system -- and with so many now at the mandatory cutoff after five years of benefits over a lifetime, how are they feeding their kids, or handling healthcare? Now that the service-worker-conveyer-belt-into-the-middleclass has disappeared, how are their children being moved into the mainstream? Or are they? Lots of questions. Had this entire generation of former service workers been abandoned to find their only salvation in an underground economy fueled by drugs?

As I recall, our conversation closed without consensus. I was left with the feeling that -- though I'd presented my case well -- I was not free to work against the official view from our office. The Latino vote had become a powerful factor in electoral politics, and I was fully aware of it. I think that -- as two mutually respectful good friends -- My boss and I without comment agreed to disagree. The words were never voiced -- then or ever, and I was left to ponder endlessly without resolution. I deeply resented the doubts I'd begun to suspect about my own sense of fairness and racial politics. Did I need to take one of those courses on the evils of racial bigotry after all these years? I truly didn't know. Was I, too, guilty of racism without recognizing it in myself?

After tentatively raising my issues at another time in the city's most effective collaborative -- Vision 2000 --, I drew back and held my silence. Though I felt strong support for my questions from other African Americans, few were willing to take a public stand on the matter. The fear of appearing racist was simply too much for us. I spoke about it with an activist African American clergyman whom I deeply respect and was told that "..African Americans are the most forgiving of people...". Didn't know quite how this related to the subject at hand, but it gave me a way to back away and hold my silence despite my strong continuing feelings of resistance while I worked on my forgiveness quotient.

I had a growing feeling that the issue was festering in the black community and that it would explode with anger and resentment at some point if not teased out. We tried to arrange a panel discussion but few participated or even seemed interested. It was not yet time.

The last time I felt strongly about the matter was a day when -- in the same group -- an announcement was made about the Latino Ride for Freedom, a bus trip across country to the nation's capital on behalf of immigrant rights. A page had been taken from our Civil Rights black book of strategies and I felt mildly offended. I couldn't, however, find a way to say anything that wouldn't alienate my Latino friends, so I quietly left the meeting as it neared closure, but again as a very troubled social activist.

Last night Lou Dobbs announced that 41% of displaced workers nationwide had been pushed out of competition for employment in the construction and services industries by illegal immigrant laborers. He added that 40% of black workers had suffered the same fate. There appeared on camera a white construction worker saying that more and more of those in his industry were being undercut for jobs by employers who were benefitting hugely from the low wages that illegals were willing to accept.

At last, the problem is being framed openly and in terms -- not of the victimization of illegal immigrants, nor of the victimization of African American displaced service workers -- but the villain was being called out for what it was; corporate greed. As it is with NAFTA and the exportation of entire industries overseas or below the border, what has happened is that those in the lower and middle classes are seeing the wages depressed by the deliberate actions of employers who benefit hugely by so doing. By bringing down wages in this country -- there will be less need for exportation of entire industries. Those results are a long way off, though, even the small wages for which the illegals will work pales against the miserably low wages in other countries. The race to the bottom will take years, but meanwhile the growing resentments among those displaced will continue to grow and the discontent will feed upon itself -- leaving the true culprits free of either blame or the need to be accountable to a nation under stress.

As always, African Americans were the canaries in the mine. The problem was explained away with the "...they're not taking jobs away from anybody. They're only doing the work that nobody else wants to do." If the Dobbs report has any merit, we may see the greatest push for controlling the borders coming from those same labor unions who ignored the signs until it reached their rank and file.

This will be a growing debate over the next decade. Hope we can uproot the villains and make firm these fragile coalitions between the have-nots. We can ill afford to do otherwise. We need one another in order to survive this time of unprecedented greed and exploitation.

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