- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. James H. Johnson doesn't know exactly who cuts his lawn and manicures his hedges, but he knows one thing.
"They are Hispanic," the business professor at the University of North Carolina says.
Mr. Johnson looks out the window of the Kenan Center, where he heads the Urban Investment Strategies program.
"That building right there was probably built by Hispanics," he says, pointing to the adjacent McColl Building, home of the business school that opened in 1997. "I'd say at least 70 percent of the work crew."
Born in Falkland, N.C., about 10 miles outside Greenville, Mr. Johnson, 48, was among 250 graduates of the first integrated high school class there in 1972.
Mr. Johnson, who is black, returned to his home state a decade ago after 14 years in California, where he watched the Hispanic population overtake the black in South Central Los Angeles. He knew from minorities, their presence and influence.
"So when I got back here, I noticed right away that something was happening," he says. "I would see one at the grocery store, one at the restaurant, one working on the roads. They were like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, for the most part. Most people looked right by it; it didn't register. But for me it did."
The South he grew up in was hardly a hotbed of immigration. But by 1992, things had changed.
"I mentioned it to some demographer friends of mine, and they told me I must have taken in some moonbeams while I was in California."
So he began to make his case, addressing the change in a 1999 academic treatise, "Newly Emerging Hispanic Communities," and in an article that year in Popular Government magazine headlined "The Changing Face of North Carolina."
The documentation was clear in his analysis of work force, settlements and housing starts. He called back his pals, the demographers.
"I said, 'Hey, Rip Van Winkle, look at this.'"
Recruitment signs in Mexico lure laborers to the United States with promises of money and seven-day workweeks, he says.
"They come here and are such good workers, everybody wants to hire them," Mr. Johnson says. "They have what we call soft skills: the attitude, the punctuality, the willingness. There is something about immigrants that makes them more willing to move up and do what it takes."
Part of the continuing conflict between black Americans and the newly arrived Hispanics is born of proximity, he says.
"The Latinos settled in black neighborhoods, where work crews were picked up on one corner across the street. The black workers waited without [getting] a call.
"This 'they are taking our jobs' is oversimplifying it, yet they say it," Mr. Johnson says of the reaction among blacks. "It's more complex. Employers want cheap labor, they want people who can work long hours. They want those soft skills. Labor recruitment is very informal, and that's a big way these jobs are handed out."
In Memphis, Tenn., some personnel agencies almost exclusively select Hispanics over black or white workers. A Panamanian clerk at Paramount Staffing, a temporary employment service, says "blacks and many whites fail their drug tests."
Mr. Johnson doubts this.
"They may say that, but the bottom line is that employers want Hispanics, and if they can't get them at one place, they will go somewhere else. The playing field isn't level for all folks."
Mr. Johnson can identify. He employs 30 to 35 office workers himself.
"I know that I can't have someone with a bad attitude. I want someone good."


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