When Gary Sheffield recently made comments about MLB teams preferring players from Latin America to African Americans because the Latinos are seen as being less likely to stand up for themselves, many took it to be insulting to both Latinos and African Americans. However, King Kaufman has pointed out in his that Sheffield’s comments should be taken as an indictment about the way in which discrimination and exploitation relies on the ability to break minorities and other disadvantaged groups into areas where the ability to make rights claims are undermined by the disempowerment of another group. By pointing out that MLB teams prefer Latinos because they will not stand up for themselves because they are not aware of how they should be treated, and are afraid of the dire consequences if they get sent back home, Sheffield and Kaufmann are pointing to a much larger problem facing minorities in this country.
The laws in this country that were put in place to protect against exploitation and discrimination have been under constant attack, leading to situations where the precarious ability of one group to make rights claims (to not be discriminated against in the amount of money you are paid or in your workplace conditions, or to be able to go to court and claim what you are owed) means that everybody is harmed.
In recent years the Supreme Court has severely undermine the protections of workers. In Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc., v. NLRB the Supreme Court held that undocumented workers are not entitled to back pay (the only monetary remedy available) under the National Labor Relations Act when they are illegally fired for attempting to unionize and stop exploitative practices.
Further, just this year, in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. the new Court under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, undermined the ability to bring claims of pay discrimination. In that case, Lilly Ledbetter, who worked her entire career at lower pay than men doing the same job, could not recover the money she was wrongfully denied because she did not complain about it at the time she was hired, despite the fact she probably did not know at that time she was being discriminated against.
It is precisely these issues that that create the atmosphere where Latino players are preferred over African American ones. From the standpoint of those in power, it is advantageous to keep those who you are seeking to maximize profit from as powerless as possible. It not only is it easy to keep those groups in control, but it also keeps groups who are relatively more empowered, but still vulnerable, in a precarious position.
When over a million people took to the street last year to demand to that undocumented people should be given legal status in this country, some legitimated this call on the basis that undocumented immigrants “do work that no one else is willing to do.”
In truth, Sheffield’s comments are closer to the mark. Essentially, his point exemplifies the reality that that it is undocumented immigrants, because of their legal vulnerability, are doing work under conditions that no one should have to put up with, for pay that is unjust, with little in the way of legal recourse or protection. This is a result of their de jure subordinate legal status, and the conservative retrenchment of the Courts who are dismantling a host of protections for vulnerable groups. Likewise, African Americans, who have long struggled against racial discrimination in the workplace and in other social institutions find their ability to make rights claims in a similar predicament. If they argue too much and demand their rights too vehemently, there is the reality that they could be replaced by another group that will not be able to “cause as much trouble.”
From Jackie Robinson to Mohamed Ali to the rhetoric that now surrounds the NBA and its players, sports have given us insights into our race relations. Now, Sheffield’s comments do the same in the context of changing racial demographics and global economic conditions, and what it means for the fight for social justice. Sheffield and Kaufman are on to something, that reveals the way in which the struggle for dignity and fairness is no longer a national issue, even in the context of our national past time. It for this reasons that the immigrants’ rights struggle is a struggle for all those facing discrimination. In fighting so that everyone working here and living here we ensure decent conditions for all.