Immigrant leaders act to defuse tension as new marches near
Nearly a year ago, immigration-rights marchers quoted Martin Luther King Jr. as they hit the streets of Chicago--and drew a backlash from some voices in the African-American community, from churches to talk radio.
As immigrant leaders plan a new wave of action this spring, they hope to bring the city's black leaders into their movement and defuse tension between the communities.
On Tuesday more than a dozen activists announced the creation of the Faith and Justice Leadership Alliance, a coalition of Latino and African-American groups that will try to join immigration reform with issues the two communities have more in common, such as crime, education and housing.
African-Americans were represented at the news conference by several church groups, including Clergy Speaks Interdenominational, which says it has more than 200 member churches. On the Latino side, it was mostly community activists, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Calling the effort "historic" in a city notorious for racial segregation, coalition leaders said the need for dialogue is critical as crime and high rents increasingly force blacks and Latinos to share neighborhoods.
In areas such as Chicago Lawn, South Chicago and Humboldt Park, where black and Latino families often live doors apart, mutual resentment over perceived competition for jobs or political power--briefly inflamed by last year's marches--can destroy a neighborhood's fabric, the group's leaders said.
"We will not permit a wedge to be drawn between us," said Rev. Michael Eaddy, pastor of the People's Church of the Harvest Church of God in Christ in West Garfield Park. "Being a pastor for 28 years in Chicago, I've come to the understanding that pain and suffering and loss of economic opportunity are not race-specific."
But forming a racial coalition is a lot easier than sustaining one. And while the new alliance includes influential voices in both communities, its formation does not mean there's new harmony on the streets.
"There's a lot of bad feelings out here," said Englewood Rev. Anthony Williams. "There's got to be a healthy dialogue, and it's got to include the average Joe."
Kim Williams, a Harvard University professor who is researching racial dynamics across the country, said some blacks feel their issues have been shoved aside by discussion of immigration reform.
Plus, "the idea of talking about Elvira Arellano as the next Rosa Parks is probably a little bit much," Williams added, referring to the undocumented immigrant who has avoided deportation by taking refuge inside a Chicago church.
The alliance members hope to approach those obstacles with baby steps. For instance, there is a prayer vigil scheduled in two weeks at Eaddy's church that's meant to draw hundreds of Latinos and African-Americans.
But even that level of action can be challenging, said John Ziegler, who is overseeing a DePaul University project on black-Latino relations in three Chicago neighborhoods.
Ziegler said groups are sometimes tripped up by anxiety about venturing into each other's communities, even when they live near one another.
"It's nice to dialogue about these things in theory and have a sort of kumbayaish feel to it, but when it comes to making it a product, that's where the challenges lie," Ziegler said.
Abel Nunez of Uptown's Centro Romero said to succeed, "we have to identify all the elephants in the room and not be afraid to talk about them."
The next few months could be a test for the new group, as immigrant leaders ramp up efforts to win reforms that stalled in Congress last year.
Part of that strategy will be a rally planned for March 10 and a march on May 1 to commemorate the massive gatherings last year that filled downtown.
While some African-American organizations participated in those marches, Mexicans dominated Chicago's immigration-reform movement, estranging some non-Latino groups.
Among the disaffected were some of the 100,000 immigrants from Africa, said Alie Kabba, president of the United African Organization. He recalled the apathy immigrant leaders from Nairobi or Kenya felt after not being included in meetings.
This year, joining the alliance, Kabba sees African immigrants as a potential bridge between African-Americans and Latinos.
In recent months, "we went to several African-American churches to teach them about immigration reform," Kabba said. "They were able to see it isn't just a Mexican issue. An undocumented African is in the same predicament as an undocumented Mexican immigrant."