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Fingering Illegal Immigrants for Black Jobless Crisis

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Fontana, California city councilperson Acquanetta Warren minced no words at her campaign stops at black churches in the area. She enthusiastically cheered the Arizona immigration law. She didn't stop there. She said that a tough law cracking down on illegal immigration was long overdue, waved off any notion that it would lead to racial profiling, and challenged the federal government to do its job and fully enforce the tough immigration controls. Warren is a Republican, running for a state assembly seat, and she's black. Her tout of Arizona's law had nothing to do with partisan conservative politics or belief; it was a matter of jobs, or the lack thereof, for young blacks. Warren cited a recent study that claims that the influx of Latino workers into a city increases unemployment and violence in the African-American community.

It's not a new claim. Intense debate and raging battles have been fought the last few years, between economists, politicians, immigrant rights activists and black anti-immigration activists over whether illegal immigrants are the major cause of double-digit joblessness among poor, unskilled, young black males. The national furor over the Arizona immigration law reignited this old debate.

The job picture for black males is indeed grim. According to Labor Department reports, nearly 40 percent of young black males are unemployed. In some inner city neighborhoods, more than half of young black males are jobless. The Congressional Black Caucus and other community organizations have pressed President Obama to say and do more about the jobless crisis among blacks. Obama has refused to specifically push any special initiatives or earmark funding for unemployed blacks. He contends that growing the economy and the billions pumped in stimulus dollars in job projects is the best way to dent black joblessness. This caused a momentary flap with the CBC last December.

Despite the administration's belief and best efforts, the hard reality is that black unemployment remains the highest of any group in America. Warren and the researchers dump much of the blame for this on immigration. There is some evidence that in the unskilled trades, retail and service industries, illegal immigration has had a negative impact on black job loss. The debate though is how great is the loss? Anti-immigration groups claim that illegal immigrants take tens of thousands from blacks. Civil rights groups say that number is wildly inflated.
Several years before the immigration combatants squared off, however, University of Wisconsin graduate researcher Devah Pager pointed the finger in another direction, a direction that makes most employers squirm. And that's toward the persistent and deep racial discrimination in the workplace. Pager found that black men without a criminal record are less likely to find a job than white men with criminal records.

In 2005 Pager duplicated her study. The results were exactly the same as in her earlier study, despite the fact that New York has some of the nation's toughest laws against job discrimination.

Dumping the blame for the chronic job crisis of young, poor black men on undocumented immigrants stokes the passions and hysteria of immigration reform opponents, but it also lets employers off the hook for discrimination. The mountain of federal and state anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action programs and successful employment discrimination lawsuits give the public the impression that job discrimination is a relic of a shameful, racist past.

Countless research studies and the numerous discrimination complaints reviewed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the past decade reveal that employers have devised endless dodges to evade anti-discrimination laws. That includes rejecting applicants by their names or areas of the city they live in. Black applicants may be incorrectly told that jobs advertised were filled already.

In studies of the hiring practices of employers in some cities, many top company officials when interviewed said they would not hire blacks. When asked to assess the work ethic of white, black and Latino employees by race, nearly 40 percent of the employer's ranked blacks dead last.

The employers routinely described blacks as being "unskilled," "uneducated," "illiterate," "dishonest," "lacking initiative," "involved with gangs and drugs" or "unstable," of having "no family values" and being "poor role models." The consensus among these employers was that blacks brought their alleged pathologies to the work place, and were to be avoided at all costs. Not only white employers express such views; researchers found that black business owners shared many of the same negative attitudes.

Other surveys have found that a substantial number of non-white business owners also refuse to hire blacks. Their bias effectively closed out another area of employment to thousands of blacks, solely based on their color.

Warren's political pandering aside, her unabashed praise of the Arizona law taps the fear and frustration of many blacks over the dreary job picture for black job seekers. Immigration has had some arguable impact on that picture. But the prime culprit remains, as always, discrimination. Fingering Illegal Immigrants for the black jobless crisis won't change that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press).
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