February 17, 2007

In NYC, It's Not Fear of Immigrants...

In reading Jimmy Higgins' earlier post here on anti-immigrant sentiment and the danger of nativism--and the interesting responses--something struck me sharply. Living for my whole life in New York City, it’s hard for me to analyze or even relate to the fear and loathing of immigrants that grips some parts of the U.S. What we in NYC fear is somewhat different, and was clarified for me by a conversation with a cousin at a recent family gathering.

My cousin, whom I’ll call Tony, has a semi-skilled job with a telecommunications company and recently moved with his wife and kids from Staten Island to a New Jersey suburb. Tony’s widowed mother, now about 70, had made her global proletarian passage from a small town near Naples to the industrial Red Belt of Bologna to a textile factory in Scotland to a laundry in Staten Island—where she met and married my late uncle, and still lives.

“I don’t feel good about where my mother lives,” Tony was telling me. His mother is in the house that had been my paternal grandmother’s, across the street from a city bus depot in a racially mixed poor and working class neighborhood. Though not an activist or a self-identified progressive, Tony is married to a woman of part-African descent who looks like a person of color (as do their kids), and he is sensitized to racial stereotyping on a gut level. He groped for words to articulate his concern about his mother’s neighborhood. “There’s too many people who—I don’t know what’s the right way to put it—lowlifes, people who don’t work.”

“People who don’t work” really captured for me what many folks in New York City fear. People who don’t follow the rules of civil behavior because they have no stake in keeping it together and getting ahead, in getting up in the morning and functioning. People who will turn a little brush or disagreement into a big fight because they have nothing better to do and no other way of feeling effective or gauging their impact on the world. People who leave their garbage in the hallway because they’ve given up on taking any pride or pleasure in how their surroundings look. People who might mess with your elderly widowed mother or throw garbage in her yard just for the hell of it….

Now, often the expression of fear and loathing of people who don’t work can be white people’s code for dumping on Black and Puerto Rican people, or a way of simply blaming the victim and ignoring the historical and structural economic dynamics that cut off some racially and nationally oppressed peoples from stable jobs, viable home mortgages, etc. But it’s not always that, or only that. And it’s not expressed only by white people.

I remember about eight years ago when I was working in a second chance high school for older teens, counseling one African American young woman who was very proud and happy that she was holding a part-time job. With no parents around, she was living in the projects with her grandmother and also with two uncles who were dealing drugs. Their apartment had recently been raided at 6 a.m. by a SWAT team who put 9 mm pistols to everybody’s head and asked where the drugs were. My student, with help from nobody that I could tell, had gotten her self back into school and found a job. Looking toward the future, she said, “ I just wanna come home at night and have to ask what was on Jerry Springer--‘cause I was working all day.”

For many working class people, especially those with the least economically secure lives, the contempt for people who don’t work is fueled by the terror of what you know could happen to you if you lose your grip and can’t make it into work—and could happen very quickly.

All of which goes to say that in New York City, most people seems to know that most immigrants work their butts off for very little money and came here because they do want to get ahead. And therefore, from what I can tell, there is very little of the classic anti-immigrant hysteria, but a lot of fear and loathing of people who don’t work.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, NP, for this thoughful post.

In the African-American community, historically, there has been a demand for more Black faces on construction projects. When the overwhelming majority of the large jobs were union and the building trades were lily-white, this demand had one type of currency in the nationalist movement. Today, when more and more construction, even government projects, are going to non-union contractors, more and more undocumented workers are on these jobs. So jobsite demonstrations that were previously organized with slogans about "work going to those who LIVE in the COMMUNITY" now often have banners like "Show Us Your Green Card"

And this immigration issue really breaks two ways. A number of years back the Latina/o community (particularly Dominicans) were often euphemistically referred to as "the element" (as in, the element you didn't want to live near) when not specifically degraded as "crazy Dominicans." But meanwhile, Jamaicans were often humiliated for "working TOO hard." The cliché was that certain Caribbean immigrants came to the US and held down multiple jobs, just to send money home. The point being that they were "stealing" jobs that should have gone to "US citizens".

Napolitana-Piemontese said...

Rahim has highlighted what I think is the thorniest political issue related to immigration, for progressives: the competition for jobs between African Americans (along with other marginally employed and historically oppressed U.S.-born workers) and immigrants. The fear of people who could take your work is kinda the obverse of the fear of people who don't work, and is even more charged.

I know of some unions and progressive legislators who have tried to grapple with this one--but it's very hard to do with the casualized, non-union jobs that you're talking about. The UNITE-HERE (hotel and restaurant workers) local in San Francisco negotiated an arrangement whereby a certain number of job slots would be guaranteed to African Americans (whose proportion in this work force had been falling) while at the same time the union and employers would work toward legalization of all the immigrant workers. A couple of years ago, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas proposed some federal jobs creation legislation with similar provisions but it never went anywhere.

Looking specifically at construction, it occurs to me that some dynamics around the gender division of labor may be important. Industries like construction (and the building trades overall) are historically open to immigrant workers because they don't require much knowledge of English. And because they require a lot of upper body strength, they're male-dominated, and in the non-union sector unaffected by affirmative action legislation, often all-male.

This probably contributes to the conflicts taking the violent, physical form that they have for the past 35 years, at least in New York City--with rival crews of different ethnicities and races sometimes fighting and vandalizing sites etc. I mean, if you want to work in the hospitality industry, it goes against the grain of the job to compete for it violently. But if it's construction--there's a lot of male bonding and hazing,and the use of physical force is in sync with the nature of the job.