Trump and his allies continue to claim that immigration threatens the jobs of poor black people, but that's a dangerous false narrative.
This article is a response to "I'm a Young Black Woman and I'm Voting for Trump"
If black voters needed another reason to stay away from Donald Trump, they got one during Monday's debate, when he was asked by moderator Lester Holt how he would heal America's racial divide. Trump's answer: "law and order," stop and frisk policing tactics, and a crackdown on the gangs of "illegal immigrants" the Republican said were "roaming the streets." No nod to the reasons black people may not trust the kind of law and order police hand out, no references to economic inequality, and especially no apology for Trump's years-long campaign accusing the first black president of not being born in America.
This falls in line with Trump's pitiful "outreach" to the black community, which includes such tactics as repeatedly referring to black neighborhoods as "hellish" and trotting out Don King, a.k.a. Uncle Ruckus, as a spokesman. As many commentators have pointed out, it often seems like Trump isn't even speaking to black people, but instead trying to convince undecided college-educated whites that he's not a racist.
As the election looms closer, I'm really not worried about blacks voting for Trump. I'm more worried about blacks not voting at all over a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton—and even more than that, I'm worried about black votes not counting because of laws designed to make it harder for them to cast their ballots.
But even if Trump fails to win the White House, Trumpism could stick around for years. In the same way presidential loser Barry Goldwater helped define modern conservative politics (and thus much of American politics), some of the batshit things Trump is pushing today could stick around and eventually get peddled by a real politician with a better haircut and a more amenable temperament.
Trump's defining issue, practically his only issue, is the idea that immigration is bad—that immigrants bring crime with them and take jobs away from Americans, especially low-skilled workers who used to be able to count on well-paid manufacturing jobs. On this issue, he feeds blacks the same line he feeds everyone else, an outlook that divides marginalized communities. Here's what he said during a late-August stump speech in Phoenix:
"Hillary Clinton has pledged amnesty in her first one hundred days, and her plan will provide Obamacare, Social Security, and Medicare for illegal immigrants—breaking the federal budget. On top of that, she promises uncontrolled low-skilled immigration that continues to reduce jobs and wages for American workers, and especially for African American and Hispanic workers."
Now, economists generally think that more low-skilled immigrants would be good for the American economy as a whole. Despite conventional wisdom, immigration actually often creates jobs, since more immigrants means more demand for goods and services. But there is still a debate about whether immigration hurts workers who have the same low-skilled jobs as the immigrants.
This idea that immigration particularly hurts the black community has not only been perpetuated by Trump, but it's also been pushed by right-wing publications like National Review and Breitbart. Even black writers have begun to take it up: Jay Stephens wrote an op-ed on the subject for VICE, and John Gibbs has touched on it frequently in his writing for the Federalist. The "undocumented workers are bad for African Americas" narrative isn't limited to the conservative side of the ledger either—Cord Jefferson, formerly of Gawker, wrote about it for the Root way back in 2010.
The impetus behind this idea likely comes largely from the desire to have an easy explanation for the economic issues faced by the black community, because we're not where we should be. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, joblessness among blacks was at 8.8 percent in February—that's the lowest point it's been since April 2008. It's still about twice as high as the white unemployment rate. And the wage gap between the races right now is the largest it's been in 40 years.
However, counter to what Trump and others contend, there's evidence that immigration can actually help low-skilled blacks get back to work. Denver University economist Jack Strauss analyzed a wide breadth of data from metropolitan areas across the US in 2013 to determine whether blacks in particular lose out when it comes to immigration. He found there to be a "one-way causation from increased immigration including Latinos to higher black wages and lower poverty." In other words, immigration is good for black workers. According to Strauss's summary of his findings, a "1 percent rise in Latino immigration contributes to a 1.4 percent increase in employment rates among African Americans," and "for every 1 percent increase in a city's share of Latinos, African median and mean wages increase by 3 percent."
One reason for this might be what economists call "skill complimentarities," the idea that some skills become more valuable as the workforce changes—as immigrants come in, speaking English turns into a valuable skill. If a business hires two new immigrant janitors, a black janitor could become a foreman to manage the immigrants thanks to his English fluency or take on a more specialized role for higher pay.
The benefits that immigration brings to local economies is being recognized by struggling Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Detroit, which are now working to attract immigrants. And though they may not be doing this specifically to help their black populations, it might have that effect. Strauss specifically cites St. Louis, a city where black unemployment is nearly three times that of the white rate. "Immigration from Latin America would have sustained St. Louis's population, tax base, school enrollment, and most of the lost African American jobs," he writes. "Further, it would have reduced crime among young African American men by giving them more economic opportunities."
Trump doesn't care about any of this, of course, and seems determined to push his anti-immigrant message to voters of all races. And while the political idiot savant's appeals to blacks over this issue have been ineffective in this cycle, they could be sowing the seeds of resentment that might one day flower into a fracturing of the black and brown voting coalition that coalesced around Obama in 2008.
When Trump and his ilk make immigration a bogeyman, they conveniently ignore the systemic racism blacks have been facing for decades.
Trump's not-so-subtle linking of immigrants to crime, if taken seriously by black people, could also serve to divide the African American and Latino communities, who face some of the same prejudices and challenges in America and have every reason to reject Trump. Divisions between these communities would be supremely disappointing, because keeping this black and brown coalition together will help go along way to fighting the actual cause behind the poor economic standings of both blacks and Hispanics.
And what is that root cause? The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank that has combed through the data behind the massive wage gap between black and white workers, mainly blames institutionalized discrimination. According to the EPI, this factor shrinks in economic booms and gets magnified during economic busts, like the recession the US is still currently climbing out of.
When Trump and his ilk make immigration a bogeyman, they conveniently ignore the systemic racism blacks have been facing for decades. It's a lot easier to harp on the specter of immigrants stealing jobs than it is to explain how mass incarceration and housing discrimination have actually robbed generations of black people of opportunity and wealth.
If you're one of the black folks who's worried about our people's economic prospects in this country, remember that the key isn't finding a scapegoat or a shortcut to the problem at hand. Closing inequality between black and white can't be done by building a wall to keep out people, who in many instances, look like you. Instead, it begins with the very real work of addressing the institutional racism that has been essential to this country long before there was even a border to cross.
Follow Wilbert Cooper on Twitter.