This Article advances a new approach to understanding the relationship between work and citizenship that comes out of research on African American and Latino immigrant low-wage workers. Media accounts typically portray African Americans and Latino immigrants as engaged in a pitched battle for jobs. Conventional wisdom suggests that the source of tension between these groups is labor competition or the racial prejudice of employers. While these explanations offer useful insights, they do not fully explain the intensity and longevity of the conflict. Nor has relevant legal scholarship offered a sufficient theoretical lens through which this conflict can be viewed. In the absence of such a theory, opportunities for solidarity building are lost and normative solutions in the context of immigration and antidiscrimination law reform are unsatisfying. This Article critiques existing theories of the link between work and citizenship for failing to attend to the realities of immigration, job differentiation within the universe of low-wage work, and the extent to which a group’s race, formal citizenship status, and history affect its relationship to work.
This Article fills this gap by arguing that citizenship—defined broadly as “belonging” in the broader community—provides an additional lens for understanding interactions between African American and Latino immigrant low-wage workers. This nuanced, context-based theory of citizenship, which is grounded in insights from Critical Race Theory, immigration scholarship, and constitutional law, reveals profound differences in the way that African Americans and Latino immigrant workers who appear to be similarly situated in the low-wage context conceive of and experience work, providing a more accurate window into the conflict between them. It also highlights important similarities and convergences in the paths to the workplace taken by these groups, pointing to unique opportunities for increased solidarity between low-wage African American and Latino immigrant workers on the job.