By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
Immigrants to America would gain tremendously by learning of the struggle for racial justice. Millions of immigrant families are navigating American life with time for little else. However, immigrants should study this nation’s racial history.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were mere words for people of color until African-Americans forced this country to deliver on her promises. Yet, too often, immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa fail to acknowledge how African American battles for racial justice assists these new arrivals to the country.
African Americans successfully fought a Super- Power and won. They contributed mind and body to create justice for all. Most areas of American life enjoyed by immigrants, from employment and housing to education and political rights were made better by African Americans challenging discrimination.
African Americans fought for rights most immigrants now take for granted. Unfortunately, knowledge of African Americans is often based on cancelled television shows or bad movies this country exports worldwide. Prejudices based on fiction are created well before stepping foot on American soil. Without intervention, these negative images may remain with immigrants for a lifetime.
These prejudices can blind immigrants to the link between the benefits they enjoy and the great sacrifices made by African Americans. African Americans led protests for justice. Their cases, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, changed American life, especially for people of color and immigrants. Black American men, women, and children died for the cause of racial justice. Yet, immigrants rarely understand that they are building on a foundation built by African Americans.
Too often, instead of appreciation for a battle well-fought, there is only disrespect. Too many immigrants can be overheard disparaging African Americans. Few immigrant-owned businesses hire African Americans. There is little acknowledgement of Black American sacrifices. Frequently immigrants dismiss African Americans complaint of discrimination. Until, it happens to them.
Muslims, especially from the Middle East, were jolted into a harsh reality after September 11. Latinos, with the downturn of America’s economy, became the focus of rebuke. After the attack in Boston, Eastern Europeans may be the next group mistrusted and scrutinized.
Many of those who immigrated to America are leaving countries with discrimination based on religion, ethnic affiliation, or race. Yet, upon arriving here they boldly turn against African Americans as if to be anti-Black is one way to become fully American. However, racial prejudice marks the worst part of American culture.
Immigrants, like most vulnerable groups, often stay in the shadows hoping not to be noticed. They want to stay out of trouble, raise families, earn money, and enjoy life; so do African Americans. If Blacks are visibly fighting, protesting, suing, and making demands, it is because others refuse to take on those challenges. Yet, once Blacks succeed, then other groups quickly reach for a share.
Many immigrants mistakenly see African Americans only as former slaves, ignoring their great history of courage. Movies and television shows rarely depict African American heroes. Even the citizenship test, given by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, asks a question on the Emancipation Proclamation. This slavery question on a citizenship test would support an immigrant’s view that African Americans are known for their oppression and not their power.
However, slavery did not begin in Africa or with African Americans. The word slave stems from ‘slav’ which comes from Eastern Europe. African Americans fought for justice during and after slavery. Focusing only on slavery ignores African Americans who are billionaires, ballerinas, astrophysicists, basketball players, actors, business owners, lawyers, educators, soldiers, and bankers. To lock African Americans in an image of slavery means overlooking 300 years of fighting for justice under law.
Racial justice classes would benefit both non-immigrants and immigrants. With Texas and other States attempting to sanitize slavery and racism out of public school books, college may soon be the only place where classes on America’s racial history are taught. Young people seem to believe that they are immune from racial prejudice. However, there is little evidence that a Black friend means a lack of prejudice toward an entire group, for life. As the immigrant population steadily grows, continued progress in racial justice as well as women’s rights and religious freedom requires educational investment.
If those who are new to America studied this nation’s complex racial history they would gain a greater respect for African- Americans and a deeper understanding of American culture. African Americans blazed the trail immigrants now travel.
They survived the worst of a journey immigrants to this country have just begun.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” and a legal correspondent covering the U.S. Supreme Court.