As the anti-immigrant fever spreads, which side will blacks be on?
Black musicians have a history of challenging oppression. From Billie Holiday singing about lynching to Marvin Gaye criticizing war and Public Enemy telling us to “fight the power,” African American performers have spoken up against injustice. So, how come more blacks haven’t signed up for Sound Strike, the musicians’ boycott against Arizona?
Performers participating in the strike have agreed not to play in Arizona until the state rescinds its new law to crackdown on illegal immigration. That’s because critics of SB 1070, scheduled to go into effect July 29, say the law will lead to racial profiling and harassment of anyone with brown skin. Seems like a problem African Americans can relate to, no? But just three famous “urban” recording artists have signed up for Sound Strike: Kanye West, Chris Rock (hey, comedians cut albums, too) and The Coup. Altogether, about 200 artists are participating in the boycott.
So, what’s the deal? Do contemporary black musicians fear that expressing their political views will alienate fans? Seriously, Kanye has yet to live down his “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” remark. Or is something else to blame for the low black turnout in Sound Strike? Perhaps African Americans have neglected to sign up for the boycott because they approve of SB 1070.
A July 16 field poll on the Arizona law done in California—presumably because immigration is also a hot issue there—found that majorities of whites and blacks support SB 1070. In contrast, 71 percent of Hispanics disapprove of the law, while Asians were split by ethnicity in response to it.
The field poll results aren’t all that shocking. California is a state where racial tensions run high between blacks and Latinos due to gang warfare, competition for government resources and the divide-and-conquer machine that positions the two groups as enemies. This machine scapegoats Latinos generally and immigrants specifically. What’s to blame for the high black unemployment rate? According to those seeking to divide and conquer—it isn’t workplace discrimination, fewer job opportunities in black neighborhoods or the criminalization of black men, but undocumented immigrants. If this were true, though, why did blacks suffer from high unemployment rates decades before the influx of Latin American immigrants poured into the U.S.? Moreover, it’s well known that undocumented immigrants typically take jobs as day laborers, farm workers, domestics and kitchen staffers, jobs that African Americans, and Americans overall, aren’t exactly clamoring for. Given this, it would be nonsensical for racial resentment towards Latinos to drive black support of SB 1070.
African Americans may also support the law because, when they think immigrant, they think Mexican, and decide that the issue doesn’t really concern them. But a substantial number of immigrants in America are black.
In 2005, the New York Times reported that the number of Africans who’d entered the U.S. had surpassed the number forced to enter the country during the slave trade. About 50,000 African immigrants arrive in the U.S. annually, the Times reported.
“There is no official count of the many others who entered the country illegally or have overstayed their visas…,” the paper continued.
My relatives, half of whom hail from Nigeria, know African immigrants who live in Arizona. Who’s to say that SB 1070 doesn’t put these immigrants at risk? Study after study shows that police officers stop black drivers and pedestrians disproportionately, whether there’s reason to or not. So, SB 1070 gives law enforcement another way to harass blacks. Think about it. The policy allows police to ask anyone they reasonably suspect of being in the country illegally to show papers. Wouldn’t it be reasonable for police to ask a black person they stopped who had a foreign name and accent to present proof of residency? As with Latinos likely to be stopped under this law, it wouldn’t matter if the person were here legally. If they couldn’t cough up papers, they might end up getting arrested.
Of course, Arizona’s population of blacks is small at just 4 percent. But the state’s immigration policy is already influencing others to devise similar laws. Before long, a state with a higher concentration of African Americans will draw up such a policy. Which side of the issue will blacks be on then?
Let’s not be self-serving. Let’s oppose these kinds of immigration laws before they spread, whether blacks are the target group or another is. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
With Sound Strike, black musicians have the chance to sway the public to fight inequality. They should seize it. Kanye, The Coup and Chris Rock shouldn’t bear this burden alone.
Nadra Kareem is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Racialicious.com, About.com and other media outlets.