President Fox’s Foolish Words

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

Perhaps Mexico's President Vicente Fox, who's made much of his country's common bonds with the United States, was just trying to demonstrate how thoroughly American—in the worst way—he could be.

Last Friday in a speech apparently meant to underscore his dissatisfaction with some recent U.S. immigration policies, the leader of Mexico seemingly sought to bolster his argument by denigrating African Americans.

"There's no doubt," he said, "that the Mexican men and women—fully of dignity, willpower and a capacity for work—are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States."

Now, after several days of sharp criticism from within our borders and Mexico's, too, word comes that President Fox spoke by telephone with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton and said he "regretted" his comment.

Good. But the assertion is still worth exploring because it embodies several fundamental tenets of the racist canon so familiar to any American over the age of twelve.

In case President Fox missed that section of his briefing papers on American history, most African Americans today share a common bond with America's Mexican-Americans—whether or not they possess the proper immigration documents.

Most African Americans today are either migrants themselves or the children or grandchildren of those blacks who left the American South by the millions in the first five decades of the twentieth century.

They were fleeing the brutal oppression of Jim Crow racism. True, they—filled with dignity, willpower and a capacity for work—found plenty of racism in the North and West, too. But they also found a measure of opportunity, which they seized to build better lives for themselves and their children.

Their heroic efforts across the decades laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s—which proved of enormous benefit to other Americans of color, including those from Mexico and the rest of Latin America, striving for that full measure of opportunity the

United States has always proclaimed to be its gift to humanity.
It's not difficult to understand that what President Fox knows to be true of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans as a group is true of all peoples, including African Americans. It only requires understanding that when any of us look beyond our own ethnic group, we're looking in a mirror.

If President Fox needs fact-based proof of that truism, then let him take note of the decline during the years 1999 and 2000 of the black unemployment rate in the U.S. to an historic low of 7 percent.

That decline was certified by a study of more than 300 metropolitan areas by the National Bureau of Economic Research. It determined that the falloff largely resulted from poor black males, aged 16 to 24, rushing to take the low-wage, service-sector jobs at the bottom of the occupational ladder that had, finally, become open to them.

That businesses were hiring African Americans for these jobs—the very kind President Fox declared "not even blacks want"—meant that America's job-creation had become so expansive that employers literally had no choice but to extend "first-rung-on-the-ladder" opportunities to blacks males, too.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne remarked then that the historic development proved "those who argued for years that the plight of the poor owed more to what was wrong with the economy than to what was wrong with the poor have been proved right."

The historic decline of the black unemployment rate remains a powerful rebuke to the "culture of poverty" claims some continue to out forward to explain away the present black unemployment rate—which since the 2001 recession has returned to its "traditional place" in the double digits. It's now at 10.4 percent, twice the national rate.

They want to disguise the fact that African Americans, particularly those at the bottom of the economic ladder, continue to be victimized by the "last-hired, first-fired" dynamic. Why that is so has very little to do with their "dignity, willpower and capacity to work" and everything to do with the intolerance of those doing the hiring.

It's heartening that President Fox is re-thinking his views. I would hope that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would express her own and her department's willingness to help President Fox learn more about all of those who comprise the citizenry of his neighbor to the North, especially those African Americans who match in economic and educational status—and yes, in "dignity, willpower, and a capacity for work"—the Mexican immigrants President Fox was championing.

That would undoubtedly help millions more on both sides of the border develop minds more open to seeing humanity's finest qualities in all kinds of people.

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