Race, Class, and the Immigration Issue in the U.S.
By Dave Fryett
It is astonishing to see how immigration is transforming the United States. Hordes of illegal immigrants are being driven across our southern border every year by the dire macroeconomic circumstances brought on by NAFTA. The result is startling. I live and work near Chinatown in Seattle and pass through it often. About ten years ago, when I arrived here, there was a relatively small Latin community, and there were certain parts of the city where one seldom encountered them, like Chinatown. Nowadays one marvels at just how many Chinese restaurant kitchens are staffed by Mexican immigrants. I occasionally frequent a tofu restaurant owned by Buddhist vegetarians from Vietnam, one day while waiting for my spicy tofu banh mi, I heard a familiar voice greet me in Spanish. It was a Mexican man whom I had met on a bus and assisted as I know a bit of his language. I said I was surprised to see him in a vegetarian restaurant. With an embarrassed smile he informed me that he worked there making tofu. We were ruminating on the irony of it when the owner, who speaks English, approached and addressed us both in Spanish. In amazement I asked her where she had learned the language. “Here. You have to learn some to speak with your employees.”
On a recent trip my companion and I wondered what had happened to the Asians who used to work in these kitchens. There are still quite a few left to be sure, but they are gradually being displaced by workers from south of the border.
And it is not just in the restaurant business that immigrant labor is making its presence felt. Higher-paid jobs like construction work are going to immigrant labor and here, inevitably, we see resentment of this new competition on the part of the native work force. Having working people fight over jobs is an old and familiar tactic of the ruling class. In keeping, their media has cruelly hammered away at the friendless migrants, and in ways which are provocatively racist and jingoist. This was artful of our overlords as framing immigration as a racial issue masks its class-struggle nature, and plays directly into the dysfunctionality of the race-obsessed American Left.
In the last few decades, we have seen the growth of critical race theory to prominence within the Left, and, in my view, much to our disadvantage. It had long before been decided, and rightfully so, that as a revolutionary Left we should support the struggles of all oppressed peoples, however, race theory has come to compete with class theory, and, with the aid of an ever-officious bourgeoisie, to dominate our discourse and strategy. While CRT may have academic merit, and has provided a useful check on class reductionism, it has, nonetheless, at the very least diluted our revolutionary message if not drowned it out altogether. Moreover, in the final analysis, there exists a dialectical opposition between race theory and class theory. And nowhere does this contradiction come into sharper relief than in the Left’s reaction to the illegal immigration issue. Astonishingly, the consensus view amongst our befuddled Left seems to be that this tidal wave of immigration and the resultant rapid expansion of the work force has not resulted in greater job competition! And that the protests of White workers stem from nothing more than White Supremacy! And that Blacks who issue the same complaint do so because they have been misled. It seems we believe that mass immigration is having no effect on the job market.
I saw an entry dealing with immigration at a Leftist education website. Linked therein was an article [http://www.wlbt.com/Global/story.asp?S=8053280] in which a Black state representative from Mississippi, Credell Calhoun (D-Hinds County), complains that immigration is making it harder for young Blacks to find work. He has supported a bill which makes it more difficult for employers to hire illegals. The woman who posted the link, a Marxist, described the ad which encouraged Blacks to blame illegal immigration for their economic conditions as a “fascist tactic.” Well that it is but the underlying assertion is correct, and we ignore it to our loss. The Black working class is the first victim of the post-NAFTA stampede of immigration crossing our border. The numbers in the article may be inaccurate, but if so only by degree. The predicament is real enough, particularly for young people just entering the work force.
The problem is that we on the Left insist upon looking at this as a racial issue, so we end up talking about the Minutemen, racist work laws enacted by the states, draconian ICE practices etc., all loathsome but incidental and off point. What mass immigration is is active, hands-on class war waged against working people on both sides of the border. Since the collapse of the USSR, we have had GATT, NAFTA et alia, favored trading partner status for the Beijing Bourgeoisie, repeal of New Deal anti-monopoly protections like Glass-Steagall, and the general de-industrialization of the US. The plutocrats who devised NAFTA knew it was going to drive Mexican peasants off their lands and into their cities and eventually over our borders-that was the intent. It’s all of a piece. It is the modern proxy of the Enclosure Acts. They knew this new influx of cheap, desperate labor would drive wages down for everybody, weaken trade unions, and, inevitably, foment racial animosity within the working class–a long-favored ploy from the Bourgeoisie’s big bag of tricks–and the plan is working perfectly.
Unfortunately, our race-besotted Left, at least here in the US, have taken the bait. We always do. We are not only now contributing to this aggression against the working class, but we are wasting an excellent opportunity to promote class consciousness. Black people have every right to complain about this assault on their livelihoods, so do White people and everybody else. We should be supporting them. If you work for a wage, then you are a target, whatever your color. Yet, paradoxically, we see Leftists, putative anti-capitalists, denying the obvious class implications of the immigration issue in favor of a racial interpretation. This pious reluctance to acknowledge that unchecked immigration is hurting working class families here in America for fear of eliciting even more scorn for the unfortunate migrants is commendable in its way, but it is entirely self-defeating. An increase in the labor force drives wages down: We should not be denying this fact, but exploiting it.
As the Left, as a program in open opposition to capitalism, we on both sides of the border should be explaining first and foremost that this is in fact class war; that the capitalists who crafted NAFTA knew that it would result in literally millions of Mexican peasants being driven off the land upon which they had lived for centuries and had enjoyed a decent standard of living; that the goal was to drive them first into maquiladoras and then across the border to be low-income workers to displace higher earners and imperil the livelihoods of the rest. We should explain that the bourgeoisie (and we should explain what that term means to people unfamiliar with it) is playing one group of workers against the others to the detriment of all working people. We should explain that it is the hope and expectation of the ruling class that the competition for employment will not only depress their labor costs but antagonize many workers and keep them divided and fighting amongst themselves. Crucially, we should be explaining that the interests of the dispossessed migrants and American workers are the same; that their lives are being manipulated like pawns on a chessboard by international capital; that it will always be this way so long as they hold power; that capitalism will never work for us; and that the solution is for the working class to unite internationally and take power, and then to banish capitalism.
This is our message, yet, insipidly, we see Leftists taking sides in disputes between different working classes! Unimaginably, we see Leftists denying the complaints of White workers because of the perception, very often inaccurate, that the people doing the complaining are racist; we see Leftists denying that immigration is having a negative impact on the living standards of Black Americans when in fact they have been the greatest victims in this latest skirmish of the class war. It is not only myopic but robustly counterproductive for us to deny the immiserating effects of international capital’s global machinations. We do not legitimize capitalism when we acknowledge that mass immigration is hurting the American working class–that is why capital drove these Mexican peasants off their land and across our border in the first place–rather we legitimize capitalism, bolster its fraudulent, free-market contentions, when we deny it.
We advance capital’s invidious plan when we determine to view this issue through the prism of race. By positing this conflict as a racial issue–White racists trying to bar entry to Brown people whom they despise because they are brown–we sow the the kind of intraclass enmity upon which capitalism depends. If we insist that the White working people who complain about the effect mass immigration is having on their lives are White Supremacists (a phrase we hear more than any other from the Left vis-a-vis immigration), and deny that the Black working class is being adversely affected by Mexican immigration, then we have not only betrayed the White and Black workers on whose behalf we nominally act, but we have also undermined a basic axiom upon which much of Leftist economic theory, particularly materialist theory, is based. And, worst of all, we have acceded to the unthinkable: that the interests of some races of workers are different from the others! This last was a central tenet of fascist theory–the irreconcilability of races–and a main talking point employed by Adolf Hitler when addressing German trade unions and attempting to recruit their membership to the Nazi Party.
Turn your ear toward New York and you can hear them laughing at us on Wall Street. With adversaries like us, capital has little to fear!
It is our task as Leftists to unite the native and migrant workers and, as best we can, make them understand that they have a common enemy and a common destiny.* This we cannot do while insisting that in reality the problem of job competition doesn’t exist, and that the immigration controversy has been created out of whole cloth by White workers whose protestations are nothing more than camouflage for their racism.
Immigration is a crisis for both the migrants and the native workforce, it has little or nothing to do with race. The Minutemen are not the problem. They are mostly factota, agents of the state, spectacle, part of the show. Their function is to absorb the blame which the oligarchs who put them there knew would be attributed to them by the race-fetishists of the Left, and thus to keep the specious race narrative alive. It is our job to break through this charade and reveal the deeper reality of class antagonism, turn the conflict back on the elites which instigated it. Migration is a global problem with lethal consequences, the clash in the US is just one battleground. The recent slayings of Black migrant labor by Black native labor in Cote d’Ivoire, and the horrific events in South Africa in 2008, had absolutely nothing to do with race. Large sections of the working class the world around are being reduced by poverty into vagabondage, forced to range far from their homelands in search of employment and into competition with native workers. Most of these economic refugees will only come to misery in the end. It is our responsibility as revolutionaries to expose it, and to impress upon the global working class the necessity of rising up and vanquishing capital. This we cannot do when we misidentify the problem.
*Nobody understood this better than Ricardo Flores Magon. The fates of the Mexican and American working classes are inextricably linked. His analysis of race and class were, in my view, spot on, as were his ideas about organizing. We would be well advised to pick up where he left off.