Black men's problems not Mexicans' fault

August 21, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- In the last year or so, poor and marginalized black men have gained unlikely allies: right-wing zealots taking a hard line against illegal immigration. Those hard-core ideologues have added to their complaints against illegal workers the claim that they are taking jobs from uneducated black men.

At a hearing on illegal immigration held in north Georgia last week, Phil Kent, spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control, complained that undocumented workers are "wage thieves," adding, "They are taking jobs from unemployed Americans - especially low-income whites, blacks and teenagers."

The Minuteman Project, a high-profile group of activists who want to seal the southern border, has gone so far as to recruit a few blacks to their cause. One of those - Ted Hayes, a Los Angeles homeless advocate - has denounced illegal immigration as "the greatest threat to U.S. black citizens since slavery."

Introducing Mr. Hayes as a guest on his show in April, conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity sounded like an unreconstructed 1960s liberal as he described Mr. Hayes' cause:

"I know you speak up for the downtrodden, the poor. ... Isn't the issue ... let's go after the employers? Let's go after them, who are paying subminimum wage to people who are here undocumented and give those jobs to Americans and force the employers to pay what they should pay?"

Let's postpone, for a moment, an analysis of the logic of that argument and just consider how remarkable it is that Mr. Hannity and his ilk would suggest that they care about America's "downtrodden" and a fair wage for them. After all, they are not known for their support of affirmative action, increases in the minimum wage and other programs that might boost the prospects of black men.

Indeed, Mr. Kent, a former newspaperman, was once in a position to be a prominent advocate for just those causes, but he opposed them instead. As longtime editorial page editor of The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, he presided over an opinion page that fought proposed increases in the minimum wage. In 2000, a Chronicle editorial said: "Basically, a boost in minimum wage is a boost in allowance to teens of often affluent parents. It's certainly not going to rescue anyone from poverty as proponents claim."

So Mr. Kent worries about wages for low-income earners?

Of course, it's easy to lampoon the hypocrisy of Mr. Kent and other latecomers to the cause of marginalized Americans, especially uneducated black men. It's also true that employers should not be allowed to get away with exploiting illegal workers with substandard pay.

But the ultraconservatives' analysis is faulty. The most comprehensive studies show that, on balance, illegal immigration may depress wages on the low end of the spectrum a bit, but not much - no more than 50 to 60 cents an hour, according to a recent analysis of the best studies in The New York Times. While illegal immigrants burden the social infrastructure - housing stock, schools and hospitals - in some neighborhoods, they also revitalize many neighborhoods as they open new businesses and buy additional goods and services.

There are still good reasons, of course, to worry about the prospects of less-educated black men, who are increasingly unemployed, imprisoned and marginalized. They continue to be both victims and perpetrators of homicide in disproportionate numbers. In the last decade, they have also fallen victim, increasingly, to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Perhaps nothing has done more harm to uneducated black men over the last decade than the shift toward long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. By some estimates, one-third of young black men are either in prison, on parole or on probation. Once a black man acquires a prison record, his prospects for legal employment dim drastically - at any wage.

If all 11 million illegal immigrants disappeared tomorrow, that would not change. So let's not kid ourselves by blaming Mexicans.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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