Citizenship and the Barriers to Black and Latino Coalitions in Chicago

Why is it that there is not a strong coalition between Latinos and African Americans? Why haven’t these two groups, which share so much in common, not been able to sustain long-term social and political alliances? One of the reasons is the discourse of citizenship embedded in the new right-wing, anti-immigrant xenophobia which poses a challenge to building multiracial alliances in Chicago-and elsewhere.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2010 edition of NACLA Report on the Americas.

Claudia Sandoval

Why is it that there is not a strong coalition between Latinos and African Americans? Why haven’t these two groups, which share so much in common—low socioeconomic status, unequal rates of incarceration, police brutality, among other inequalities—not be able to sustain long-term social and political alliances?1 Some scholars conclude that competition over scarce economic resources contributes to animosity between the groups.2 Others claim that it is in the interest of these two groups to form political alliances with whites, suggesting that the most benefits, for either African Americans or Latinos, can only be achieved when they align with whites, rather than each other.3

But the idea that black-and-Latino relations is a “winner takes all” game leaves little opportunity for these two groups to conceptualize affiliations that do not center on fighting over the few “crumbs” that are left behind, instead of coalitions that fight for the expansion of resources. Although the question of resources is important, the story does not end there. In order to understand the shape of African American and Latino relations, we must begin to discuss the role that citizenship status and notions of citizenship play in their relations.

Chicago is a particularly interesting place to approach these questions, since it is known as one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States.4 But it was also home one of the earliest examples of a political alliance between Latinos and African Americans. In 1983, black and Latino voters made Harold Washington the city’s first African American mayor—more than two decades before a similar coalition helped Antonio Villaraigosa become the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since 1872. Washington won over Latino voters largely because he was willing to break away from the city’s political machine and avoid running as a party loyalist, allowing him to form alliances with activists like labor organizer Rudy Lozano, who was a key player in mobilizing Latino voters. In the end, Washington won the race with very little support from white voters, capturing 75% of the votes among Latinos. Shortly after his death in 1987, however, the alliance between black and Latino leaders fell apart because of disagreements over the distribution of power.

Fast-forward to the present, and we find that black-Latino coalitions in Chicago are as fragile as ever in today’s new context of changed demographics and rising anti-immigrant xenophobia. New Latino immigration to the Midwest sharply increased in the mid-1990s, as job opportunities diminished in traditional destinations like New York, Houston, and Los Angeles; as a result, newer destinations, including the Midwest and the South, saw a stark increase in the Latino population.5

In 2009, the U.S. population survey estimated that there are more than 1 million Latino residents in Cook County, or 23% of the population—a 10% increase over 1990, while the percentage of African Americans stayed relatively the same, at 24%. Meanwhile, the nationwide anti-immigrant discourse in the mainstream media and in politics has posed a powerful challenge to black-Latino coalition politics, since it groups Chicago’s whites together with African Americans within the category of lawful, hard-working citizens—as defined against a criminal, alien Latino Other. Although everyday avoidance between African American and Latinos may be common in Chicago, given the degree of residential segregation, the national discourse of citizenship threatens to bring animosity to neighborhoods that have not previously interacted.

In 2004, the new anti-immigrant xenophobia went mainstream with the election campaign of Jim Oberweis, a white state senate candidate, who ran a TV ad in which he flew in a helicopter over Chicago’s Soldier Field stadium. “Illegal aliens are coming here to take American workers’ jobs, drive down wages, and take advantage of government benefits such as free health care,” Oberweis said into the camera. “You pay.” He added that one week’s worth of new “illegal immigrants” could fill the stadium. Echoing the now familiar refrain of such figures as Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly, Oberweis concluded: “Working families are getting a raw deal.” Although addressed to all Chicagoans, this discourse aims to drive a wedge between “illegal aliens” and “working families” of whatever race—although the message may have been effective in appealing to Chicago’s African Americans, who in 2007 had an unemployment rate double the national rate, according to one estimate.6

The effects of this nativist discourse were evident in 2006, the year when Latino activists across the country launched mass marches on May Day against a draconian immigration bill. The day after the marches in Chicago, a group of about 10 to 15 African American men held a demonstration outside a meat-processing plant, shouting “Illegal!” at Latino workers. One protester, quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times, said, “These people haven’t served time for their crimes, and they’re getting amnesty. We’re being pushed aside. The [African American] ex-offenders should have got amnesty before any illegal alien.”7 The rally was organized by Rick Bieseda, co-founder of the Chicago Minutemen Project, and Reverend Anthony Williams, a prominent pastor in Englewood, a predominantly black neighborhood.

The following August, some sectors of Chicago’s black community lashed out at Elvira Arellano, an undocumented single mother who publicly defied the government’s notice to present herself in court to face deportation to Mexico. She instead sought sanctuary at the Adalberto United Methodist Church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, together with her then eight-year-old son, Saúl. Her story attracted national media coverage and provoked a heated debate in Chicago. Along the way, Arellano spoke to the media in an effort to garner sympathy and support, but in some cases this gained her more adversaries. One comment in particular angered some of Chicago’s African American critics: “I’m strong, I’ve learned from Rosa Parks—I’m not going to the back of the bus. The law is wrong.”

Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell took strong exception to this. “As they say in the streets, Arellano is pimping the system,” Mitchell wrote. “She is using Rosa Parks’ name to buy herself more time [in the United States], and that disgusts me.”8 In a letter to the Sun-Times, Timothy Thomas Jr., a local government official, wrote that he was “incensed” that Arellano, an “illegal immigrant activist,” was “cloaking her unlawful behavior and comparing it to the stand Rosa Parks took during the Birmingham, Ala., bus boycott.” Thomas went on to explain why he thought any comparison between the actions of Parks and Arellano was offensive: “The difference in the actions and backgrounds of the two women are glaring. Parks was a U.S citizen. . . . On the other hand, Arellano’s entire history with our country has been under the shroud of illegality: illegal entry, illegal documents and now refusal to follow a court order to surrender herself and leave the country.”9

On balance, Arellano did receive public support from African American leaders. Three days after Mitchell’s column appeared, for example, Arellano was visited by members of Clergy Speaks Interdenominational, a group of African American religious leaders, who prayed with her and expressed their solidarity with her and the movement for Latino immigrant rights. “Injustice is injustice. Period,” said Reverend Albert Tyson, according to the Chicago Tribune. “We have so much more in common than we do that separates us.”10 Civil rights leader Jacqueline Jackson, the wife of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, appeared with Arellano in 2007 at a press conference, shortly before she was deported.

Yet the Minutemen-sponsored protest and the denunciations of Arellano by some African American pundits reveal how the national discourse on citizenship, criminality, and immigration not only leads to anti-immigrant sentiments, but can impede mutual understanding and coalition building between Latinos and African Americans. In both instances, some African Americans consciously or unconsciously aligned themselves with white Americans, creating a racial order in which they are positioned above Latinos by virtue of de jure citizenship—despite the fact that in the 21st century, African Americans with citizenship are still fighting to secure their de facto rights. Although residential segregation in Chicago plays a role in discouraging black and Latino unity, the xenophobic anti-immigrant discourse unleashed in recent years has been decisive.

This discourse strategically recognizes them both whites and African Americans as U.S. citizens, defining them as a single category against the criminal, alien immigrant Other. Thus, what is significant about the protest at the meat-processing plant, for example, is not that a handful of African Americans attended an anti-immigrant rally; rather, it is that the Chicago Minuteman Project—listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “nativist extremist” group—reached out to African Americans and recruited a few of them to serve as the public face of Chicago’s anti-immigrant sentiment.11 Latinos were thus positioned to perceive African Americans, not the Minuteman Project, as their antagonists.

In a similar way, Arellano’s legal status as a non-citizen functioned to split Latinos and African Americans. Although she never explicitly compared herself to Rosa Parks—citing her only as an inspiration in her act of civil disobedience—the perceived comparison touched a nerve among Chicago pundits, both white and African American, precisely because, as Thomas wrote in his letter to the Sun-Times, “Parks was a U.S citizen.” These critics’ understanding of who in the United States belongs and does not—who is a citizen and who is not, and who is a criminal and who is not—functions here to define legitimate and illegitimate civil disobedience. Following the mainstream media’s framing of immigration, these critics participated in a discourse that alienates Latino immigrants, creating misunderstandings, tension, and potential conflict between blacks and Latinos.

The political scientist Mark Q. Sawyer has suggested that some African Americans have a hard time understanding or appreciating the plight of Latinos in the United States, and that in addition to racism within Latino communities, African Americans’ unwillingness “to recognize experiences of racial groups other than the US-born Black experience also contributes to problems in coalitions.”12 If this is true, it may be the case that the anti-immigrant discourse centered on citizenship taps into this unwillingness to understand the struggle of other U.S. minority groups. It is through this process that the negative framing of citizenship is able to reproduce a racial order that keeps whites on top and both groups marginalized, with no real gains for either blacks or Latinos.

Within this discourse, black individuals, regardless of their citizenship status, are viewed as African Americans and therefore, U.S. citizens, Latinos across all ethnic groups can be perceived as illegal immigrants and therefore non-Americans. Through this frame, African Americans have the advantage of symbolically belonging to (white) U.S. society—“symbolically” because any actions that African Americans take on the immigration debate does not change the existing racial structure of white dominance, much less translate into substantive change for their own life chances. This black-white alignment can make right-wing white Americans’ anti-immigrant arguments appear non-racist, while simultaneously exacerbating tensions between blacks and Latinos.

As an anti-immigrant sentiment gains ground in Chicago and throughout the United States, bringing the question of citizenship and belonging, and how xenophobia is used to divide communities of color, is of vital importance. This is a new discussion, not usually heard in discussions of race or race relations. But it is a discussion that must be had if multiracial alliances are to be had.


Claudia Sandoval is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.


1. Karen Kaufmann, “Cracks in the Rainbow: Group Commonality as a Basis for Latino and African-American Political Coalitions,” Political Research Quarterly 56, no. 2 (June 2003): 199–210. See also Mark Q. Sawyer, “Racial Politics in Multi-Ethnic America: Black and Latino Identities and Coalitions,” in Anani Dzidzienyo and Suzanne Oboler, eds., Neither Enemies Nor Friends: Latinos, Blacks, and Afro-Latinos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

2. Hubert Blalock, Toward a Theory of Minority-Group Relations (New York: Wiley, 1967).

3. Karen Kaufmann and James G. Gimpel, “Impossible Dream or Distant Reality? Republican Efforts to Attract Latino Voters,” Center for Immigration Studies Backgrounder (Washington: Center for Immigration Studies, August 2001): 1–9.

4. St. Claire Drake & Horace Roscoe Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (University of Chicago Press, 1993 [1945]).

5. Manuel A. Vásquez, “Latino Immigration in the South: Emerging Trends and Critical Issues,” paper presented at the Jesuit Social Research Institute conference “People on the Move,” February 2010.

6. Algernon Austin, “Unemployment in Black and White,” testimony on chronic unemployment before the Congressional Black Caucus, March 17, 2010, posted at the Economic Prosperity Institute’s website, epi.org.

7. Mark Brown, “Minutemen Recruit Blacks Against Illegal Immigrants,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 3, 2006.

8. Mary Mitchell, “Immigrant Activist Holed Up in Church Is No Rosa Parks,” Chicago Sun-Times, August 22, 2006

9. Timothy Thomas Jr., “You Are No Rosa Parks,” letter to the editor, Chicago Sun-Times, August 21, 2006.

10. Oscar Avila, “Black-Clergy Group Backs Immigrant Fighting Deportation,” Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2006.

11. Southern Poverty Law Center, “ ‘Nativist Extremist’ Groups 2009,” Intelligence Report no. 137 (spring 2010), available at splcenter.org.

12. Sawyer, “Racial Politics in Multiethnic America,” 265.

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