Neighborhood Change and “Everyday Social Justice”

11.16.11 | “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Martin Luther King way back in 1963 in his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Research on race, demographic change, and neighborhoods from BRR Network member Manuel Pastor and colleagues takes steps to realize King’s still very relevant vision. Pastor’s past work on community-based regionalism has emphasized that low-income individuals must make regional connections in order to escape poverty. His work has also highlighted the power of the sometimes unusual alliances of labor, community groups, and business leaders to make change around issues of community benefits, affordable housing, or transit equity, for example.

And a new report from USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII), which Pastor directs, follows this trajectory, examining the growing residential proximity of African Americans and immigrants in California. It finds that although competition in the state’s labor market exists, it is not the main story.

“Communities are actually more united than divided,” writes Pastor and his co-authors Juan De Lara and Justin Scoggins in “All Together Now? African Americans, Immigrants, and the Future of California.”  Building on several years of research including both quantitative analysis and interviews with leaders and community organizers, the authors find common needs and disadvantages between the two groups and significant opportunity to organize around a joint agenda based on what they term “everyday social justice.”

Although the story of neighborhoods like East Oakland, West Fresno, or Vallejo are interesting on their face, they are also important, as many have pointed out, as a model for future demographic and social change in the rest of the country. California became the first majority minority state in the 1990s. And with that change immigrants, particularly Latinos, began to move into formerly African American neighborhoods, bringing new cultures, businesses, churches, sometimes revitalization, and a growing sense of loss for some African Americans residents, the authors write. Along with changes in their neighborhoods, African Americans have experienced loss of political and cultural influence.

“I understand that there’s a feeling of ‘wait, my community has changed,’” Angelica Salas from the Coalition for Humane Immigration Reform in Los Angeles says in the report. “And immigrants who are coming into the community don’t know how hard African Americans fought to be in those places … [and] not to provide that information creates a situation in which there’s a heightened level of tension.”

As the report documents, African Americans have seen the biggest increase in proximity to immigrants of any U.S.–born ethnic group in California. The authors find that that the exposure is also concentrated in fewer neighborhoods. Immigrants have been moving into what were once all black areas of the state. African American neighborhoods that held approximately 20% of California’s African American population in the 1980s now “rank in the highest 2 percent of the state in terms of Black proximity to immigrants.”

They also find that a group of neighborhoods experienced growth in both the African-American and immigrant populations. This happened because both groups moved to older suburbs for greater opportunity (better schools, for example), but also because both groups moved to far flung suburbs in places like Stockton or Fontana for lower housing costs. The latter now find themselves stuck far from jobs and with a growing foreclosure crisis. (For more on these suburbs see this post, and specifically Margaret Weir’s discussion of “extrusion.”)

Asian immigrants also make up a significant portion of immigrants in neighborhoods where blacks and immigrants live together. The report also finds that both old and new African American and immigrant neighborhoods have underperforming schools, lower incomes, and safety concerns.

The authors find some occupational displacement of African Americans by immigrant workers. However, they also find that immigration has either mixed or positive effects on native-born African Americans, even those with low skill levels. And notably, for better-educated African Americas, increasing competition in certain jobs brought on by immigrants makes those jobs harder to get and creates a greater incentive to enhance one’s skills and move up the educational ladder.

The report highlights work by churches and community-based organizations that are working to manage tensions and build toward a common agenda for change, including the role of labor unions, and attention to “youth, parents and faith-based leadership.” Examples include parents in the Los Angeles Unified School District organizing together around a discipline policy that was unfairly penalizing students of color, or bridge-building efforts by two neighboring churches in Los Angeles,  Iglesias de Restauracion and West Angeles Church of God.

They conclude with a vision for what they call “everyday social justice.” That is:

[T]he need to address daily needs around education, the economy, and the social and physical environment; the need to ensure that dialogues go beyond a more comfortable middle-class and multi-ethnic elite and reach grassroots participants; and the need to realize that this will require effort every day and over the very long haul.

The report is an interesting read, and Pastor’s model of combining rigorous scholarship with true community-based research and partnership is exciting in terms of bringing policy research out of the ivory tower and into the hands of community members and policymakers who can use it now.  It’s powerful to read the voices of community members and leaders included in the report, whose words often do the best job of telling the story.

But perhaps most powerful is the authors’ call for “patient relationship building” and the idea that movements are built not by leaders but by everyday interactions between people in neighborhoods over time.

You can download a shorter or longer more technical version of the report at CSII. And for more from Pastor, read Barbara’s interview on immigrants and the future of metropolitan America on this blog.

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