Mississippi African Americans and Latinos
Poultry is just one area in which the histories of Mississippi’s Latinos and African Americans have intersected. Mississippi has a higher percentage of African American residents (36 percent) than any U.S. state or territory but the District of Columbia. As throughout the South but perhaps nowhere more than in Mississippi African Americans’ economic and political activities have affected the lives of Latinos. Though media reports have focused on animosity between African Americans and Latinos, in Mississippi the story has been one of both conflict and alliance. Broadly speaking, the state’s established African American politicians have taken a position of support toward Latinos and their nascent political activity. On the other hand, racial and language barriers have created obstacles to alliance and understanding among African American and Latino workers, whose labor conditions and wages are directly impacted by each other’s.
On the level of state politics, African Americans have spoken out prominently and unequivocally in favor of migrants’ rights. Though mostly white antiimmigrant activists criticized migrants’ use of the Freedom Rides metaphor during a protest in 2003, African American leaders defended the analogy. They have the same problems we had in the 1960s as to finding jobs, living wages, and places to live, said state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) officer Eddie R. Smith.9 African American leaders also helped organize Mississippi’s pro-immigrant marches in 2006. State Representative Jim Evans
(D-Jackson), president of Mississippi’s Southern Christian Leadership Council, evoked the importance of defending the human rights of all a significant departure from African American civil rights leaders’ traditional reliance on the rhetoric of equal citizenship for all Americans.
Notably, however, African American voting rights activist Hollis Watkins spoke through a translator at the 2006 rally, expressing his regret that more blacks had not attended the event. Indeed, though their politicians spoke the language of human rights and mutual struggles, African American and Latino workers faced considerable barriers to working together for better wages and conditions in the workplace. Scholars conducting fieldwork with poultry workers have found that many adopted mainstream discourses, which reinforced distinctions between African American and Latino workers. Black workers commonly expressed that Hispanics are too willing to work for nothing, and they’re taking our jobs and forcing us to work harder the flip side of local whites’ discourses praising Latinos for working harder than blacks.10 Meanwhile, Latinos described their African American co-workers as being lazy and as not having discrimination problems.
Efforts at cross-racial organizing have attempted to identify common elements of the two groups’ histories and positions within the global economy for example, by encouraging Latino workers to consider the history of racism against African Americans in the United States, while showing African Americans that a low wage in Mississippi might translate into subsistence for an entire family living off remittances in Latin America. The relationship between African Americans and Latinos in Mississippi would continue to prove critical as the next wave of Latinos arrived.
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