When Black Folks were the
By C. Zepeda-Millán
While this nation was founded by migrants who came without papers (the Pilgrims), once the official United States of America was established, the first group of people to “break the law” by illegally crossing borders were blacks. During the time of slavery, run-away slaves fled their economically and physically oppressive situation (many times in order to reunify with family members who had previously escaped) by breaking the law and leaving their plantations in hopes of “illegally crossing” the North-South border known as the “Masson-Dixon line.” The first coyotes, the abolitionists, and other freedom fighters such as many Quakers, helped pay for and organize the crossings, housed and fed them, and knowingly broke the law by doing so. Much like the “Senseless-brenner Bill” (HR4437) proposes to do today, in 1850 white slave owning elites made it against the law to help or assist these runaways in any way (the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850). In fact, some of these racists went even further. Like todays border vigilantes (i.e. the Minutemen), militias were organized to patrol the Masson-Dixon line to keep migrants from crossing and to search for those who had already passed. Fortunately for many of these runaway slaves – who were brave enough to risk their lives in this potentially deadly journey – many people chose to side with dignity and humanity by helping them instead of obeying unjust and inhumane laws.
After slavery ended and reconstruction failed, many blacks “flooded” northern white cities. This “invasion” caused many poor and economically exploited whites to complain that blacks “brought down wages”, "were taking their jobs,” “willing to work for less”, and were “too racially and culturally different to assimilate.” Many whites believed that blacks should “go back to where they came from” (the South or Africa). Unfortunately, there weren’t any jobs in the South and many blacks were willing to endure this discrimination in order to feed their families and hopefully provide a better and freer life for their children. Working class whites failed to recognize that they were taking their anger out on the victims, while ignoring what prominent black scholar Manning Marable contends was the root cause of the “underdevelopment of black America” – capitalism. Today, while the root cause – neoliberalism – of the “underdevelopment of immigrant America” is also nowhere to be found in mainstream America’s debates about immigration, again the victims (immigrants), who are merely the effects of neoliberal policies and economic exploitation, are once again forced to endure disdain by both the oppressors (the corporations that profit from their labor) and other oppressed people (poor and working class blacks and whites).
In fact, while complaining about the effects of black migration, many poor whites supported Jim Crow laws, a dual wage system, lack of worker rights, and the exclusion of blacks from unions. They failed to realize that their support for these policies only served to further deepen racial and class divisions that if bridged, could provide the basis for a movement that could bring the economically exploitive system they both toiled under to its knees. Unfortunately, today many working-class black and white Americans have been bamboozled and fooled into making the same mistakes again by supporting politicians who promote policies that they perceive to take their interests into account, but that in reality actually produce the main source of their discontents. For example, many in the black community jokingly refer to former U.S. President Bill Clinton as “the first black president” – after all, he loves jazz and chose to locate his post-presidential office in the heart of Harlem. Yet this same Bill Clinton who many black elites and black masses – though by all means not all – venerate, joined with Republicans and business-Democrats to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which not only “served as a death sentence” to many of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, but also dramatically increased the poverty rate in Mexico and in effect contributed to the massive migration that we’ve seen over the last decade. In fact, while many contend that Mexico itself should be blamed for its economic woes, this train of thought negates the fact that ever since before the Mexican Revolution of 1910 (in which many black runway slaves in exile fought alongside Mexican peasants), American corporate interests has owned significant portions of economically vital Mexican industries (such as oil, mines, and railroads) and helped perpetuate the economic exploitation of the Mexican masses by supporting corrupt governments such as the 70 year dictatorship of the PRI party. Yet again, the effects (migrants) not the causes (neoliberal policies) are blamed.
Despite the fact that Latino immigrants already die on the job at a rate nearly 250% higher than the average American worker, the Kennedy/McCain Bill proposes to subject these “aliens” to today’s version of the “3/5th Clause” through the euphemism of “a temporary worker program” that does not guarantee a living wage, the same workers’ rights and protections as American born workers, and keeps them disenfranchised by not allowing them to take part in the political system which they are subject to. Though the bill claims to offer “a path to citizenship,” as long as the “legalization” of these laborers and the power of deportation are influenced by their employers, this program will amount to nothing more than indentured servitude. This isn’t too far from how some immigrants have already been treated in America. Let us not forget that the victims in the most resent cases of modern day slavery – whether they be in the fields of Florida or the sweatshops of California – were all immigrants of various races and ethnicities.
In conclusion, the analogies made throughout this article are not perfect. By no means am I trying to argue that the oppression that immigrants endure today equates to the horrors of the enslavement of Africans in America – they don’t. But in relative terms, undocumented people today are the most vulnerable and exploitable segment of the American workforce and as long as we allow them to remain so, all American workers suffer. The goal of this reflection is merely to attempt to demonstrate that the exploitation of our labor – that of black, brown, and all working class peoples – is embedded throughout American history, and that many of the same tactics and strategies used to keep these race and class divisions intact have not only been recycled over and over again, but also given different names and shapes in an attempt to mask them their true intent. We’re led to fight over shadows with our heads facing the ground, while the oppressive system casting them remains untouched.
Fortunately a window of opportunity has opened that we cannot afford to let pass us by. We are living in historical times. Resistance to the effects of global exploitation is spreading all across the globe. Harriet Tubman once noted that she had “freed hundreds of slaves,” but she “could have freed thousands more if only they knew they were slaves.” Today the burden of freeing those “thousands more” lies on us. It is up to us to carry her mantel and awaken all of today’s “unconscious slaves” to the fact that their discontent and oppressive conditions derive not from the many other exploited people that share the “slaves-quarters” with them, but from a racist and economically exploitive system. Thus, that history will judge us is a given. The only question for all Americans is whether we will be written in as siding with hate, dehumanization, nativism, and exploitation, or as standing up for love, compassion, dignity, freedom and justice for all? Our actions, or inactions, will determine the final outcome.
C. Zepeda-Millán is a PhD graduate student in the Department of Government at Cornell University studying Social Movements, Immigration, and Race & Ethnic Politics.
A Brief Historical Timeline of Black & Brown Unity Compiled by Prof. Ron Wilkins, CSDH
800 B.C. – In Mexico, Egyptian (blacks) mariners arrive and establish contact with the Olmec civilization. Complimentary beliefs and other cultural practices contribute to peaceful exchanges.
1514- In Puerto Rico, Indigenous Tainos and enslaved Africans unite and conduct the first of many uprisings against Spanish colonizers.
1546- Mexico- The first recorded conspiracy against slavery occurs in Mexico City among a coalition of enslaved Africans and Indigenous insurgents.
1552- Venezuela- 800 African slave mineworkers, strengthened by Indigenous allies, rebel.
1601- Venezuela- Indigenous peoples help blacks fight the Spanish and establish a town that lasts 200s years.
1609- Vera Cruz, Mexico- Yanga establishes the “first free pueblo” of formerly enslaved Africans in the Western Hemisphere.
1693- United States- An alliance between African runaways and rebellious indigenous tribes in Florida develops and results in a considerable cooperation and intermarriages between them.
1811- Mexico- One year into the fight for independence, African- Mexican general and revolutionary priest Jose Morelos leads what is referred to as the “Erjercito Moreno” or “Dark Army” and helps fight for Mexican independence.
1820- Mexico- the pro-independence army commanded by Black general Vicente Ramon Guerrero is joined and saved by the courageous Mexican/ Indigenous leader Pedro Ascensio.
1836- United States- During the battle of the Alamo, Mexican troops fight not only to keep the US from annexing Texas, but also to abolish the dreaded practices of slavery carried by pro-slavery White settlers. This is something they didn’t have to do, but since they were Catholic and believed slavery was wrong they helped fight to stop it. Mexicans would consistently take in and help blacks slaves that would run away from the US.
1855- Mexico- Mexican authorities refused to return enslaved runaways to the US slaveholders. Aided by Mexicans in Texas, 4,000 or more runaways escape to freedom in Mexico. The US government had to send 20% of its whole army to the Mexican border to try to stop this and intimidate the Mexicans; but they continued to help.
1857- Mexico- The Mexican constitution grants freedom to enslaved Africans who escape to Mexico and refuse to acknowledge the international treaty that included extradition of persons formerly enslaved. (Mexico basically but their buts on the line and risked being attacked by the US for refusing to send former black slaves back to their owners in the US).
1862- Mexico- A sizeable French invasion force suffers a humiliating defeat at Puebla on May 5th, at the hands of Mexican defenders who were huge underdogs. The Mexican victory, celebrated as Cinco de Mayo, is a blow to slavery in the US since the US wanted France to win because the US hoped to sell France cotton from slaves if they won.
1866- Mexico- Mexican President Benito Juarez confirms an 1851 land grant giving blacks a sizeable place of refuge at Nascimiento.
1915- United States- The “Plan de San Diego” which is discovered and stopped, called for a general uprising by Mexicans in the South West to regain their stolen land (California, Texas, etc.). Clauses in the plan address Blacks, Indigenous and Asian people which would give them their freedom and autonomy.
1960- United Nations, New York- Malcolm X hosts the Cuban delegation led by Fidel Castro during their historic visit to Harlem and the United Nations.
1964- United States- Revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara meets with Malcolm X. Che also helps freedom fighters in the Congo, Africa, to help them be liberated.
1968- United States- Working solidarity is developed in California and the Southwest among the Brown Berets, Black Panthers, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other progressive youth organization.
1972- United States- Mack Lyons, Black Florida State Director for the United Farm Workers Union (started by Cesar Chavez) negotiates with Coca Cola, owner of Minute Maid oranges for a huge contract for UFW members.
1992- United States- During LA’s April 29 Rebellion (aka LA Riots), Latino and African American neighbors, recognize their common plight, demonstrate their collective rage against continuing acts of injustices, oppression and exploitation – not against each other.
1992- United States- In recognition of 500 years of resistance and following campus clashes between the two groups, Black and Latino youth in the Los Angeles area convene a successful summit to affirm, deepen, and project their long-established unity and cooperation into the future.
2003- United States- All over the country Latino and Black youth, students, parents, activist and community members continue to work together to deal with issues such as affirmative action, 3 strikes law, prison industrial complex, crime, drugs, poor schools, and to stop Republican President Bush’s war on Iraq which, like in Vietnam, will end in the killing of many of American soldiers on the “frontlines”; where browns and blacks are always overly represented.