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Is a New Civil Rights Movement Emerging?

Is a New Civil Rights Movement Emerging?
By Kevin Johnson

For weeks, television and newspaper stories have featured spectacular images of masses of humanity lined up for miles, marching in support of immigrants. Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them immigrants, peacefully marched in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Phoenix and dozens of other cities across the country. Such mass demonstrations on the issue of immigration are unprecedented in U.S. history.

The first round of protests in March targeted a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. and passed by the House of Representatives in December. The bill would have made the mere status of being an undocumented immigrant a felony, punishable by imprisonment and deportation.

For many people, the mass marches evoked proud memories of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And there are indeed signs of a mass political movement on the horizon. The immigrants’ rights marches represented true grass roots activism, organically generated by a loosely knit group of activists assisted by Spanish language radio stations. Like the 1960s, high school and university students energized the protests, with an activism and commitment not seen on campuses for a generation.

Importantly, the latest marches enjoyed a broad base of support. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles condemned the Sensenbrenner bill. Politicians, including L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich praised protesters during marches in their respective cities.

The marches unquestionably influenced the national debate over immigration. The harshest provisions of the Sensenbrenner bill now appear all but dead. The latest reform proposals on the table, although flawed in many ways, would extend benefits to many undocumented immigrants. Lawmakers will not soon forget the power and emotion of the mass marches.

But a multiracial civil rights movement will not happen on its own. Consider the lessons of an event seemingly unrelated to immigration — Hurricane Katrina. While all levels of government appeared paralyzed by ineptitude or indifference, African-Americans suffered in misery for what seemed like an eternity. Many immigrants, including Latinos and Vietnamese in the region, suffered as well. But the various groups did not work together. The African-American leadership took umbrage at the media’s characterization of Blacks who fled the Gulf region as “refugees,” and distanced themselves from “foreigners.” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin later expressed fears that the city would be “taken over by Mexican workers” coming to the Gulf region for jobs in the rebuilding effort.

Katrina highlighted the longstanding tensions between African-Americans and Latinos. Blacks fear economic and political competition from Latinos, specifically the immigrant population.

Racism also divides these communities.

Anti-Black sentiment exists in the Latino community, and nativism directed at Latinos and Asian Americans afflicts the Black community. Minority leaders are more prone to ignore the simmering animosities than address them directly.

Any future civil rights movement will require much hard work between and among communities of color. First, racism between minority communities must be addressed. A healthy and frank dialogue on this subject is long overdue.

Second, a truly multiracial civil rights movement will need to identify common ground. All minorities want wage and labor protections in the work place, safe and affordable housing, equal access to education and fair treatment by the government. The congruence of interests among African-Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos on these general issues is clear. All minorities seek full membership in American society.

But there is one significant issue that could divide rather than unite these groups. Latinos and Asian Americans generally are more concerned with the excesses of immigration law and enforcement than African-Americans, who may at times demand greater enforcement of the laws. The gulf is not insurmountable, however. African-Americans can appreciate that immigration enforcement — like racial profiling by local police — often is based on race and physical appearance. Perhaps a visionary leader like U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who is Black and has immigrant origins, could be a bridge between the communities on this potentially explosive issue.

As the spring 2006 marches demonstrate, the energy of the people is just waiting to be tapped. To build a mass movement akin to the 1960s, however, minority communities will need to build common ground.

Otherwise, we just may see a Latino civil rights movement or an immigrant rights movement that soon will disappear from the national scene.

— Kevin Johnson is the associate dean for academic affairs and Mabie-Apallas Public Interest Professor of Law and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California-Davis School of Law.

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