By JONATHAN TILOVE
NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
December 19, 1993
c. 1993 Newhouse
Immigration is undoing affirmative action’s goal of righting history by helping blacks.
In the nearly 30 years since affirmative action was born, massive Latino and Asian immigration has transformed the United States from a nation in which nearly three-quarters of the minority population was black, to one in which less than half that population is black.
And the moment these new minority immigrants set foot in the United States in search of a better life, they have the same claim to affirmative action as native-born blacks whose ancestors struggled through slavery and segregation.
It is a wholly unintended, largely undebated and virtually unreported phenomenon that goes to the guts of U.S. race and immigration policy. It threatens the social peace in cities like New York, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles, and there appears no practical escape.
“It’s the ultimate nightmare of affirmative action,” said Ricky Gaull Silberman, vice chairman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “It is its Achilles’ heel.”
More than that, it is a public and social policy that, assimilation be damned, encourages Americans, both immigrant and native-born, to identify themselves by race and ancestry and even, in the extreme, to pick up and move to where that identity serves them best.
And it has fed and nurtured a new vision of affirmative action that has largely shed its claim to historical redress in favor of a straightforward demand for proportional representation. This is especially the case in cities where the majority is no longer white and does not feel guilty.
It is a rougher, cruder affirmative action in which numbers are power, in which immigrants provide the numbers and in which blacks ultimately lose.
In ways both subtle and plain, it is a turn of events that greases the displacement of blacks by immigrants in jobs from hotels to construction. It invites immigrant entrepreneurs to cash in on minority-preference contracts and allows colleges to count their success with other minorities to fudge their failure with blacks.
There are no national surveys to prove this phenomenon, but in some of the nation’s largest cities it is significantly transforming affirmative action into a weapon that Latinos especially can wield in demanding a larger share of public sector jobs, jobs that have been the bedrock of the black middle class.
“They’re trying to siphon off all our gains,” said Mamie Grant, whose battle cry as head of the organization representing black city workers in Los Angeles is, “Whatever happened to merit?”
“I’m not in favor of affirmative action,” said Grant. “It shuts blacks out.”
“When you think of affirmative action you think of black and white,” said Clyde Johnson, Grant’s counterpart representing black county workers in Los Angeles. “All the laws really were directed specifically at eliminating patterns of discrimination against blacks.
“All the others are latecomers and bandwagon jumpers.”
But to others, that’s the bile and bitterness of blacks who think they have an exclusive franchise on civil rights, who are unwilling to accept that their days as the United States’ pre-eminent minority are numbered.
“Nobody can really compete with 400 years of slavery,” said Xavier Hermosillo, a Latino activist and talk radio host in Los Angeles. “They’ve got the lock on worst history of oppression by an ethnic minority.”
“But,” said Hermosillo, an ally of Los Angeles’ Republican mayor Richard Riordan, “it depends on how you view affirmative action. If you view it as a never-ending wheel of fortune in which blacks come up a winner on every spin, then I’ve got a problem with that. If you view affirmative action as a tool for allowing everybody the opportunity to participate, than I find that very acceptable.”
And that “everybody” in Los Angeles these days is mostly immigrants, where the Latino population has quadrupled since the dawn of affirmative action.
“They shall overcome,” said Hermosillo. “We shall overwhelm.”
In fact, early in the next century, according to census projections, immigration will push Latinos past blacks as the United States’ largest minority.
In the tinderbox that is Los Angeles, this interplay of immigration and affirmative action is like a lit match. But it is also stoking smoldering inter-minority conflicts in other big-immigration cities where black fortunes likewise rest heavily on the public sector.
In 1991, almost 30% of blacks employed in Miami-Dade County worked for the government (the same in Los Angeles County), according to Thomas Muller, author of “Immigrants and the American City.”
In New York City, nearly 40% of the more than a half million government jobs are held by blacks, though they are only about a quarter of the employed labor force.
“It makes sense for blacks to feel if there is any room made it’s going to come out of their hide,” said Angelo Falcon, who heads the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy in New York.
In Chicago, blacks outnumber Latinos in the population by 2-to-1, but in the city workforce by nearly 4-to-1.
In these cities and others, like Houston and Dallas, the exploding Latino immigrant population, and the inclusion of these immigrants in setting affirmative action targets – using census numbers that include both legal and illegal immigrants – threaten blacks’ generous share of government jobs.
Something has to give.
Either blacks must surrender their disproportionate claim to public sector jobs or Latinos must settle for less than their proportional share. Or whites must be willing, in the interests of inter-minority peace, to see their share of jobs dwindle well below their numbers in the population.
In fact, in 12 of the United States’ 20 largest cities, whites are the new minority, and in the parlance of affirmative action, the only “unprotected” minority.
The result is some new and unsettling demographic dynamics.
In a majority-minority city in which the population is driven by immigration and the politics by affirmative action, it becomes a rational act for a white interested in becoming a policeman, a firefighter or other city worker to skip town for whiter pastures. Indeed, it makes sense for job-seekers of any race or ancestry to settle where the population of others like them is large and growing.
And it means that in Los Angeles, for example, Latino power is enhanced by unrestricted immigration. While it may not be the immigrants themselves who gain most of the jobs leveraged through affirmative action, it will be other Latinos who benefit from their numbers.
Unasked and unanswered in all this are some fundamental philosophical questions about who is and who should be covered by affirmative action.
“The moral claim for blacks is unassailable,” said Dr. George La Noue, the director of the policy sciences program at the University of Maryland Graduate School.
“But,” said La Noue, who has been studying the impact of immigration on affirmative action, “now we have people who have very recently come here who have the same legal status as blacks for affirmative action.”
Raul Yzaguirre, the president of the National Council of La Raza, contends that is OK. He said Latinos have a different, less well-advertised but equally powerful history of victimization in the United States – “it wasn’t slavery, it was conquest” – and justice demands that immigrants be afforded the same protections.
(Asians, as well, have their own history of oppression, from the longstanding prohibition on Chinese and other Asians becoming naturalized citizens, to the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II.)
But Lawrence H. Fuchs, the acting chairman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, argues that affirmative action for immigrants cannot be justified by a theory of past discrimination, because they just got here, or a theory of need, because so many immigrants arrive with relatively high skills and levels of education.
For example, Asian-Americans, 62% of whom were born abroad, have a median household income that is higher than that of whites and nearly twice that of blacks. Young Asian Americans are 40% more likely to graduate from college than whites, and 3 times as likely as blacks. Korean-Americans are six times as likely as blacks to own a business.
And yet, national black leaders have not challenged the inclusion of immigrants in affirmative action programs.
“The NAACP does not see a conflict between African-Americans and immigrants,” said its new executive director, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, who is, in fact, recruiting Asians and Latinos.
“For Hispanics and blacks and Asians to debate over who is included or who is excluded is turning on each other and playing the game the naysayers would have them play,” warned Arthur Fletcher, an early architect of affirmative action policy in the Nixon Labor Department and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Still, there is an odd – and for blacks troubling – disjunction between the black-and-white way in which affirmative action is generally discussed, and its far grayer actual practice.
In September, the Wall Street Journal reported that its analysis of EEOC records had determined that only blacks suffered a net job loss in the 1990-91 recession. The Journal offered some expert analysis suggesting that employers might be laying off blacks while retaining or hiring other minorities to meet their affirmative action goals.
The Journal study noted that blacks were hit hardest in California, New York, Illinois and Florida, which also happen to be the biggest immigration states.
It is a subtle process. It is hard to find a smoking gun. Legally, hiring other minorities is no defense for not hiring blacks. But practically speaking, it happens.
“I can tell you what’s happening,” said William Kilberg, an employment discrimination consultant and former Labor Department solicitor, citing a client in the pharmaceutical business whose minority hires were way up.
“When you look behind the minority numbers what you’re seeing are a lot of Pakistani, (Asian) Indian and Vietnamese,” said Kilberg.
“A lot of these people are easy to hire. They’re trained, they’re educated, they’re hardworking and you get a bonus. Not only are they people who you would have hired anyway, but they are characterized as minorities.” The employer is left with less pressure to hire blacks.
James Lewis, the research director for the Chicago Urban League, supports extending affirmative action to immigrants as “simply good public policy.”
“We all have an interest in having all groups integrated into the American economy and the American educational system,” he said.
But, in his previous job running an employment agency for Cambodian refugees in Chicago, Lewis saw how the inclusion of immigrants in affirmative action could serve the cynical ends of employers, including at least one national hotel chain. “I was struck by the number of times employers said to me directly, ‘We want to phase out our blacks and bring in Asians. It keeps us clear in EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) and gets us better workers.’
The irony in all of this, according to Cornell labor economist Vernon Briggs Jr., is that the same black civil rights movement that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Lyndon Johnson’s executive order on affirmative action in 1965, also inspired the Immigration Act of 1965, which for the first time swung the door wide open to immigration from Asia and Latin America.
Now, he said, nearly 30 years later, it is those immigrants who are benefitting from that civil rights struggle at the expense of native-born blacks.
“It is immigration as a tool of institutional racism,” said Briggs.