Black, Brown and GreenThe shifting landscape of race and economics in the Triangleby derek jennings

I’ve lived in North Carolina for eight years now, and I’ve witnessed substantial changes during that time. I’ve seen the trees come down and the sub-developments go up. I’ve seen open space decrease and commute times increase. I’ve seen a tidal wave of high technology sweeping over all aspects of our lives, from the way we work to the way we worship (how many churches have e-mail and Web sites now?). And during that same span, I’ve seen something happen that I saw previously while living in the Washington D.C. area–jobs that have been traditionally held by blacks are now becoming footholds for Latinos and other immigrants.

When I first came down here eight years ago, I remember being surprised by the number of black folks I saw employed as construction laborers, fast-food workers and janitorial staff. In the D.C. metropolitan area, where I’d spent my previous eight years, I’d seen a similar workforce composition brown-shift drastically during the late ’80s and early ’90s, to the point where it seemed that most of those jobs were held by workers from El Salvador and Mexico.

Statistics bear out my observations. The combination of explosive growth and a booming economy has done a lot to change the face of employment in North Carolina, particularly in the Triangle. Over the last 10 years, the region’s population has increased by nearly 40 percent, creating an almost self-fulfilling economic engine: The high-end jobs attracted newcomers from across the world, and the population influx necessitated more hiring to maintain the Triangle’s burgeoning infrastructure.

With low single-digit unemployment a seeming permanent fixture, this era of plentiful jobs created an upward mobility born of necessity for the Triangle’s traditional work force. As former fast-food workers, cashiers and laborers segued into clerical positions and other niches of the service economy, the need for workers to stand in on the lower rungs of the economic ladder have increased, and have been increasingly filled by Latinos, who, like every other economic immigrant to North Carolina (myself included), came seeking a place to make a decent living and provide for their families.

African Americans have undoubtedly profited during the economic expansion. The rising tide lifted our boats–maybe not as high as everyone else’s, but we got a lift just the same. We were buoyed against the downward pull of factors like employment discrimination and the relative lack of preparedness that accompanies our historically lower income levels. Folks who would have done well did better in the halcyon days of the job market, and those who wouldn’t have gotten in the door otherwise were given opportunities to work and prove themselves.

The work dynamic transpiring in the Triangle, if one can believe the labor study published by N.C. State University late last year, is one of replacement not displacement. “Ethnic succession” is the term used by the authors, sociology professors Donald Tomaskovic-Devey and Jeffrey Leiter, whose analysis of labor statistics from 1993-1997 indicated to them that as African Americans and whites moved up in the economy, they created a vacuum that has been filled in large part by Latinos.

That’s a sharp contrast from the situation I left in D.C., where this work force transformation occurred against the backdrop of a stagnant economy, and the result was depressed wages, increased unemployment and simmering inter-ethnic tension. Even so, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to black folks when the other shoe drops, when the echoes of the economic boom no longer reverberate and the waves of prosperity recede. When the “last hired, first fired” rule goes back into effect and those of us without secure footing on the economic ladder slide back down, finding our old jobs occupied, Goldilocks-style.

African Americans, depending on our own economic levels and socio-political awareness, can be downright hostile to the notion of “other people taking our jobs.” That’s precisely how a lot of people view the situation, without understanding what’s behind the words or the larger circumstances they represent. Let me proceed to break it down.

Other People. This is an internalization of a more pervasive “American” view of Latinos as immigrants, aliens, and a slew of interchangeable slurs that I need not list. Latinos as “other” (crinkle your nose as you say it to get it right) is an attitude that runs deep in our society. “Remember the Alamo” and all that stuff lives in our popular psyche. Every once in a while, we need to collectively remember that these “others,” minus the blood of the conquistadors, are part of the same group of Native American people to whom this entire continent once belonged. It’s supremely ironic, therefore to see U.S. citizens wringing their hands over Mexicans “sneaking” into Texas and New Mexico. At a more basic level, it’s ludicrous for blacks to condescendingly view Latinos the same way the white power structure has traditionally viewed us.

Taking. First of all, let’s be real: There are a number of jobs that we don’t want to do anyway, employment of the last resort that will always be a measure of the desperation of the available work force. For the jobs where African American and Latino interests overlap, “taking” doesn’t do justice to the actual dynamic. In some cases, we’re out-competed. In some cases, the jobs are “given” to Latino workers by business owners and managers enamored of the stereotype of the hard-working Hispanic who will work for next to nothing. In the North, I’d heard of that happening in the housekeeping industry, where motivated black women were told that only Latinos were being considered for certain jobs cleaning hospitals and hotels. Of course, that’s employment discrimination–the fault of the employer, not the employee.

The hardworking Hispanic stereotype can and does hurt Latino workers–especially those who are recent immigrants–as many employers subject them to conditions that they know are illegal, or at least would not be accepted by other elements of the work force more familiar with their rights. The abuses are even more egregious when the workers concerned are undocumented, and must weigh their working conditions against the fear of deportation. As reported in The News & Observer in December, a study by the N.C. Occupational Safety and Health Project in Durham cited dozens of instances where Latino workers, mainly in the restaurant and construction industries, were not being provided proper wages or working conditions. The study also mentioned that the incidences are underreported, and that the law is rarely enforced.

These things notwithstanding, why are there so many immigrants coming to this country from Mexico, and other parts of Central and Latin America? Let me pose the question differently and see if you can figure it out. Would you relocate to another country if the average salaries were so high that you could make $75,000 just for cutting grass or working a fast food job? Imagine what skilled laborers would make, or professionals. Hard to turn down, huh?

I have a friend, a fellow information-technology worker, who grew up in what we’d colloquially term the ‘hood, or the barrio, en Español. He estimates the average for I/T workers in Mexico to be around $8,400 a year. By contrast, minimum wage is about $12,500 here, or, roughly 50 percent higher than the average I/T salary where he’s from. (Taking $50,000 to represent the average I/T salary here, I added 50 percent to derive the figure in my example). So it’s easy to see why the United States, and this area particularly, is so attractive. A bunch of money and decent living conditions too?

My friend, being in high tech and having worked on several temporary assignments in the states, says that he felt a lot more tension from whites, but his friends, the cholos that he grew up with, have stories similar to those echoed by Latinos in the Triangle. They moved to the United States, seeking construction work in Phoenix and San Antonio, where they say that there are palpable tensions between them and the black Americans who perceive them to be an economic threat. In case it’s not obvious, I’m aware that not all Latinos are immigrants, and that not all of them are concentrated in the entry level, minimum-wage strata of the economy (likewise for black Americans). I’m looking specifically at the impact of the shifting composition of the work force on the black working class and working poor, who are the ones in our community most likely to perceive Latinos and other immigrants as taking “our jobs.”

Our Jobs. What are “our jobs” anyway? That phrase implies that we own them in some sense already, or worse, that we’ve accepted “our place” in the American (and world) economy and society. The “replacement” view of the economic transition makes a rosy assumption that all of us have been lifted by that wave of economic good fortune, but the reality is that there are those of us whom the “hire ’em all” ship passed by, for a variety of reasons, and that’s where tension’s kettle begins to boil. For Latinos to come in and hustle, imploring us to either hurry up or get off of the economic ladder, is an indictment of the structure of our national economy, the state of American society, and black people’s own efforts in overcoming those well-known obstacles. Rather than resent our new brothers and sisters, we should thank them for showing us these things.

Even though the N.C. State study found that replacement was taking place rather than displacement, it’s significant to note that the statistics upon which Leiter and Tomaskovic-Devey based their findings largely excluded the agriculture and construction industries (statistics weren’t available due to reporting exclusions for small businesses), areas that would appear heavily dominated by Latinos and that used to be mainstays of African Americans. As a result, displacement may actually be happening now. Even if not, the phenomenal economic growth which provided the opportunities for blacks to move up in the labor market has come to a halt, meaning a lot of us will be looking for employment soon. What impact will that have on our communities, considering that we’re already at a relative economic disadvantage compared to the rest of America? The impending recession (actually, it has already arrived if you ask any of the thousands of recently laid-off workers) is making these questions uncomfortably urgent.

There are some things we can do as a community to deal with these problems. Foremost is gaining an understanding of the way this economy works, and where we currently fit into it. We also need an understanding of the traditional roles we’ve played in the economy, as well as the roles of Latinos, Asians, Africans and other recent immigrants, and the strategies they’ve used to achieve success. Some of these strategies will translate to our conditions, some will not. The disadvantage of being poor in a rich country is that no matter how badly you regard your circumstance, there are others for whom your level of poverty is a step up. As a result, there’s no new place we can go to duplicate the mythical $75,000 minimum-wage jobs I used in my previous example. Nonetheless, the reverse migration of African Americans from the North to the South indicates that we are using our mobility to improve our economic chances.

There are some cultural things we can learn from other economic immigrants–who’ve had the ironic luxury of not growing up in America’s supersaturated consumer culture, where everyone across the spectrum is continually encouraged to buy happiness. Workers from other countries often board with each other and carpool to work in order to defray expenses. Otherwise, the extremely high costs of living would nullify the advantage of the income differential from their home countries. Effectively, many of these workers are supporting themselves at subsistence levels so that they can send enough money home to improve their loved ones’ standard of living. Of course, if you’re “from” here, you are the loved one whose standard of living you’re trying to improve, and our traditional conception of doing so means moving into more expensive housing, driving more expensive cars, and essentially spending more money. No savings. No wealth. Treadmill life. Learning to make do with less and delaying gratification for long-term goals is a valuable ideal that would certainly benefit all Americans, but getting there is an uphill battle. Even immigrants eventually struggle with our consumer culture after they’ve been here long enough.

The understanding we gain of our economic situation, and that of the newcomers with whom we find ourselves competing, should lead us to some specific actions. In those industries or areas where we find that we’re losing ground because employers are violating the law and taking advantage of immigrants, we need to join with those workers, educate them about their rights, and present organized opposition to illegal practices. (Black Workers for Social Justice is already doing just that. See “Shades of Brown,” Page 12.)

As the overall economic pie shrinks, we need to bake our own pies, identifying niches where we are uniquely qualified to provide products and services, or find new ways to capitalize on services we already provide for others. A prime example of that is the number of Latino lawn services that are thriving in the Triangle. After gaining footholds as laborers, many of these enterprising workers now own their own trucks and equipment, and have cultivated a clientele, allowing them to move up the economic ladder. The fact that they speak Spanish, initially viewed as a disadvantage in the traditional economy, is an advantage now for all types of businesses clamoring to provide services to a rising number of Latino consumers. While gradually making progress in the mainstream economy, their sense of culture has allowed them to build their own sub-economy, from grocery stores to credit unions.

These are things black folks have been talking about doing for a long time. We’ve had successes there, surely, but not on the scale necessary to foster true self-sufficiency. The successes of Latinos show us that self-sufficiency is still a viable model–it might even provide some insulation from the effects of a slowing economy. Most African Americans have never been true immigrants, having been brought here, rather than come of our own volition. And during the heydays of European immigration, we watched as America opened its arms and provided opportunities to those who “melted” (cast off recognizable elements of their culture and ethnicity) in a way we could never do–because of the color of our skin, and the systematic repression of our group and individual aspirations. Decades of inertia have kept far too many of us stuck on the bottom rungs of the ladder, despite the number of successful climbers. It could very well be that in order for us to collectively make the next big steps up, we’re going to have to consider ourselves as immigrants, or at least form close bonds with them and adopt strategies for our mutual success. To stand still is to be passed by. EndBlock