Minnesotans For Sustainability©
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"Cast Down Your Bucket Where You
Frank L. Morris, is former dean of graduate studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
On the issue of immigration, contemporary Americans, and especially African Americans, need to be guided by two lessons from history. The first, from the New Testament, says that "without vision, the people perish." The second warns that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Unfortunately, many African American political leaders and intellectuals do not heed these lessons with regard to immigration. They either are ignorant of the insights of their forerunners or they fail to understand how similar today's conditions are to those during the previous wave of mass immigration.
At the same time, it is clear from poll after poll that African Americans as a whole have much sounder views regarding today's record levels of immigration. One result of this intellectual and political dissonance is that African Americans are in danger of much greater future suffering because of the political choices and actions taken today on their behalf.
As is clear from this compilation, "Cast Down Your Bucket Where You
Are": Black Americans on Immigration, one of the facts of American
history that is not widely discussed is the nation's long-standing preference
for immigrant labor, when the alternative was to train and employ native-born
African Americans. Booker T. Washington in his famous 1895 Atlanta exposition
speech pleaded with industrialists not to look to European immigrants to man
their new factories but rather to the black and white labor supply in the South.
Blacks were always the residual labor pool and never able to enjoy the benefits
of full employment, save for times of war when the
The mass immigration that started in the late 19th century greatly slowed the industrialization of the South and has made southern rural poverty most difficult to eradicate. We are beginning to reap the policy whirlwind of a similar mass immigration policy in the 1980s and 1990s. The result has been similar a more difficult and depressed labor market for African Americans in the last part of the 20th century.
America stands out among the world's nations by continuing a policy of mass immigration during a time of slow economic growth and industrial restructuring. African Americans are disproportionally hurt by this process because immigrants tend to locate in our big cities, there to compete with African Americans for housing, jobs, and education. Needless to say, as manufacturing and industrial jobs decline, the competition for the remaining blue-collar jobs becomes more intense, and when this happens African Americans lose for a variety of reasons reasons ranging from racial stereotypes to employer preference for vulnerable workers fearing deportation.
The following compilation of historical opinion should serve as a wake-up call for many of today's African American leaders and intellectuals, who take counterproductive stands on the issue of whether to encourage the expansion or contraction of immigration. African American leaders in the past knew that labor was not exempt from the law of supply and demand. Anything, including immigration, which increases the supply of labor in America works against the interests of African Americans. The consequences, such as depressed wages or the substitution of other workers, are clearly not in the interests of African Americans. It is sad that this basic fact, recognized by such dissimilar figures as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, is today so widely ignored. The Center for Immigration Studies should be commended for reminding contemporary African American intellectuals and political leaders how they have not been true to the insights of their predecessors genuine leaders who never hesitated to put the interests of African Americans first.
Thus did Frederick Douglass, just six years after the end of the Civil War, sum up the threat that mass immigration has posed to black Americans throughout much of our nation's history. Even before Emancipation, free blacks in the North had found their economic position challenged by immigrants. After the War, advocates for blacks initially feared that the defeated southerners would use immigrants to usurp blacks' role in the agrarian economy of the South. An Alabama man expressed the southern planters' thinking with regard to a scheme to import Chinese farmworkers:
The attempts by planters to shunt aside their former bondsmen in favor of foreigners ultimately proved unsuccessful; blacks' role in southern agriculture was preserved. But the widespread desire among white Americans to bypass blacks in favor of immigrants remained, and the way it unfolded proved to have more far-reaching consequences than any scheme to import alien farmworkers.
The mass industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, combined with the opening of vast lands in the West for settlement, offered an opportunity to draw toward the mainstream of the economy the mass of native-born unskilled labor that blacks represented. The vast labor needs of northern factories might have created an economic incentive to overcome the pervasive racism of the time, enabling blacks to get in on the ground floor of industrialization. The benefits of such a policy, to blacks specifically but also to the entire nation, would have been incalculable.
But the opportunity was squandered. Between 1880 and 1924, about 26 million people came to the United States from overseas, mainly from southern and eastern Europe a number equal to four times the total population of black Americans at the start of that Great Wave of immigration.
These millions of immigrants slaked most of the thirst for labor of the North's rapidly expanding industries, permitting them to flower without having to attract rural black laborers. Blacks thus were shut out from the opportunity to flee Jim Crow and peonage in the South. Only with the labor shortages caused by the First World War, and the subsequent cutoff of most immigration in the 1920s, did blacks have to be recruited for high-wage jobs. Mass immigration, in other words, significantly altered the history of black Americans by delaying their entry into the modern, industrial economy.
The two decades after World War II, with their rapid economic growth, presented another opportunity for black economic advancement. But it was during this period that immigration slowly began to rise after the lows of the 1920s and 1930s, and only a year after the struggle for black legal equality reached fruition with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the groundwork for a new wave of mass immigration was established with the Immigration Act of 1965. Since then, nearly 20 million legal immigrants have moved here, in addition to millions of illegal immigrants. This flow continues at the rate of about one million a year, in an unfortunate repetition of the period before World War I.
Prominent black Americans today are silent regarding the pernicious effects of this ongoing immigration on their brethren. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was no such reticence. In speeches and letters, newspapers and books, black Americans of all political persuasions spoke out about the harm done to them by the federal government's policy of allowing the mass importation of cheap labor. This publication draws together a selection of that commentary, to remind us of the logic underlying black Americans' heritage of protest against mass immigration as a fundamental impediment to black economic progress a heritage forgotten in recent years.
Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in the 1830s and headed north. There he saw the beginnings of immigrant competition with blacks. Black men at the time dominated many blue-collar occupations in New York, while maids, cooks, laundresses and seamstresses were generally black women.4
They were secure in these types of employment and earned relatively good wages. But the influx of white foreigners changed the situation rapidly. Unskilled European workers moved into the occupations which had been dominated by blacks. Offering to work for any wages they could obtain, they reduced blacks' earnings dramatically and deprived many of employment.
Douglass commented on this in an 1853 article:
They are becoming porters, stevedores, wood sawyers, hod carriers, brick makers, white washers and barbers, so that the blacks can scarcely find the means of subsistence a few years ago, and a white barber would have been a curiosity now their poles stand on every street. Formerly blacks were almost the exclusive coachmen in wealthy families . . .Without the means of living, life is a curse, and leaves us at the mercy of the oppressor to become his debased slaves."5
In an 1879 article in the Baltimore Sun, he observed how the bargaining power of blacks, potentially greater in the South because of a lack of other labor, was undercut in the immigrant-rich cities of the North:
In an 1879 speech in Boston, Douglass commented on the motives of those encouraging Chinese immigration:
Neither the South or the North provided an escape for the ex-slaves against the rising tide of immigrant competition. Many decided to move west to Texas and California. In California, blacks and Chinese competed in the same businesses. In 1876, about 8,000 California Chinese worked as domestics or launderers, jobs blacks had once dominated.35
In an 1869 speech in Medina, N.Y., Douglass said:
In an 1871 article in The Washington New National Era, Douglass reflected on the meaning of cheap immigrant labor for blacks:
Nor did Douglass fail to note the political advantages enjoyed by immigrants. In an 1853 speech in New York, he said:
it would appear that America had neither justice, mercy nor religion."10
Outraged that the constitution of New York discouraged blacks from voting, Douglass condemned the state government in an 1855 speech in Troy, illustrating the tragic preference America has shown throughout its history for foreigners over native blacks:
Booker T. Washington was careful not to attack immigrants as human beings. In fact, he often held them up as role models for blacks, using the enterprising immigrant's ability to overcome oppression and poverty as a rhetorical device to inspire his fellow blacks. In a 1912 speech before the National Negro Business League in Chicago, for instance, Washington said:
But despite the rhetorical utility of promoting the example of immigrants as a spur to black achievement, he clearly saw that a national policy of mass immigration was harmful to blacks. In his famous address at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895, Washington implored white industrialists to turn to their black fellow-countrymen to man their new factories, rather than import workers from overseas:
In an 1889 speech to the Women's New England Club, Washington criticized the widespread bias in favor of immigrants:
Such bias, in combination with mass immigration, would have devastating results for black Americans. Washington warned of this in an 1882 speech on industrial education for blacks before the Alabama State Teachers' Association:
Similarly, writing in 1902 in the Tuskegee Student about the lack of funds for education, Washington warned of the consequences of competition from mass immigration:
W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington represented the opposing poles of a debate about the best method of advancement for black Americans a debate which continues today. But one thing Du Bois and Washington did agree on was the harm foreign labor could inflict on blacks.
The two co-authored the 1907 book The Negro in the South, where they discussed how immigration was used against black workers:
But escape to the North would not be a solution either. To illustrate this, Du Bois wrote in his 1899 book, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, that black barbers had been very abundant in that city, and had numerous white customers. As immigration increased, black barbershops did less business:
In his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois wrote about the relations between immigrants and slaves before Emancipation:
[new immigrants] came to oppose slavery not so much from moral as from the economic fear of being reduced by competition to the level of slaves. They wanted to become capitalists; and they found that chance threatened by the competition of a working class whose status at the bottom of the economic structure seemed permanent and inescapable. Then, gradually, as succeeding immigrants were thrown in difficult and exasperating competition with black workers, their attitude changed . . . He found pouring into cities like New York and Philadelphia emancipated Negroes with low standards of living, competing for the jobs which the lower class of unskilled white laborers wanted.
For the immediate available jobs, the Irish particularly competed and the employers because of race antipathy and sympathy with the South did not wish to increase the number of Negro workers, so long as the foreigners worked just as cheaply. The foreigners in turn blamed blacks for the cheap price of labor . . . The Negroes worked cheaply, partly from custom, partly as their only defense against competition. The white laborers realized that Negroes were part of a group of millions of workers who were slaves by law, and whose competition kept white labor out of the work of the South and threatened its wages and stability in the North. When now the labor question moved West, and became a part of the land question, the competition of black men became of increased importance . . . But here on this free land, they met not only a few free Negro workers, but the threat of a mass of slaves. The attitude of the West toward Negroes, therefore, became sterner than that of the East. Here was the possibility of direct competition with slaves, and the absorption of Western land into the slave system. This must be resisted at all costs, but beyond this, even free Negroes must be discouraged. On this the Southern poor white immigrants insisted."19
In the same book, Du Bois pointed out that mass immigration hurt both black and white laborers, and he foreshadowed future events by noting the Republican Party platform of 1864, which advocated increased immigration in the interest of big business:
should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.' That year the Bureau of Immigration was created . . . In 1860, immigrants were coming in at a rate of 130,000 a year . . . but the new homestead laws began to attract them so that after the war immigration quickly rose from 200,000 to 350,000 a year, and in 1873, had reached 460,000 annually.
It was all too true, as Senator Wilson of Massachusetts said in the 38th Congress, but it was a truth that white laborers did not yet realize: `We have advocated the rights of the black man, because the black man was the most oppressed type of toiling man of this country. I tell you, sir, that the man who is the enemy of the black laboring man is the enemy of the white laboring man the world over. The same influences that go to keep down and crush the rights of the poor black man bear down and oppress the poor white laboring man.' "20
Finally, in a 1929 article in The Crisis, he reflected on the benefits to blacks from the reductions in immigration that had been enacted earlier in the decade:
Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey led the "back to Africa" movement during the early part of this century. Despite the radical political differences that separated him from other prominent black Americans, he too recognized the threat to blacks of mass immigration. In a 1920 speech at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., he warned of the rising tide of immigration and the despair it would create for blacks:
Newspapers and magazines also reported on the loss of opportunities for blacks because of the large influx of immigrant labor. The following selection of editorials and articles provides some insight into black sentiment during the early years of this century.
The Colored American Magazine of New York published the following piece in 1904 by John L. Waller, Jr., who minced few words about the "Evils of European Emigration":
Also in The Colored American Magazine, a 1905 piece entitled "Immigration Again," despite a certain chauvinism, was unequivocal about the threat posed by immigrant labor to blacks:
[General of Immigration, Frank P.] Sargent, who has expressed himself as well pleased, not only with the selection of New Orleans as the base of operation, but with the idea of flooding the South with foreign labor as well.
It is of no use to warn the South against inviting a foreign, disagreeable, and unfit element into its midst. This has been repeatedly done, and the South has repeatedly disregarded all warnings, however logical and convincing. It must learn, and it certainly shall, that Italians cannot do farm labor, and will not for any length of time perform satisfactory public work. No less a person Mr. Thomas H. Malone, who thoroughly understands conditions in the South, pointed out recently in a newspaper article that the Italian, as a laborer, is unreliable and ineffective, and he substantiated the charge with forceful citation of recent shortcomings. And yet in this the South must take its lesson, for it is like unto a foolish maiden, who accepts advice from no quarter, and ofttimes will not believe what her eyes behold.
The friends of the race, in the South, should warn colored men everywhere against unreliability in labor, leaving the plantations, and failing to purchase the soil whenever and wherever they can.
If cheap and foreign labor should take root and become well grounded in the South, the Afro-American as a laborer, skilled workman, and soil owner would be in much the same condition as his brother in the North, who cannot find work of a high character, and consequently unable to purchase land, and homes, even if they were offered to him in desirable sections. The colored man in the South should bend every energy to the making sure of his present domination as a laborer and farmer, and to acquiring more of every kind of labor and land in sight.
Those who are leading the South should impress these truths upon the rank and file, in order that they might meet prepared any attack made upon their economic life.24
In another 1904 article, "Bread and Butter Argument," the magazine described the displacement of blacks by immigrants:
. . . .
As it has been in domestic and janitor service in New York so also it has been in the other occupations referred to in the beginning of this article, notably in hotel and restaurant service. The Negro headwaiter has disappeared from the hotel service of New York City and the waiters have gone with him. The loss of this occupation and that of domestic service has been a positive misfortune to the men and women of the race in New York. Indeed, the choice of occupation has steadily narrowed, so that it would be difficult to say how the large Afro-American population of the Metropolis manages to keep soul and body together, especially when the high price of living, of which rent is the most considerable item, is taken into account. . . .
In a broader way the statistics just furnished by the Federal Census Bureau show that there has been a steady falling off in the number of Negroes employed in the skilled trades. White artisans, of their own motion or by motion of the trades union, are crowding them hard if not out.25
The wave of immigration early in this the century was temporarily halted by World War I, which made passage across the sea even more hazardous than usual. This cutoff in the flow of newcomers, and the return of some immigrants to their native lands, helped create opportunities for black Americans. The New York Age reported that blacks had the most to gain from legislation that would maintain this reduction in immigration. In 1917 it wrote: The action of Congress in enacting an Immigration bill is of particular interest to the colored people of this country. The return of thousands of foreigners to the home of their birth incident to the European war, materially helped to create new industrial opportunities for Negro labor. Immediately after the war the influx of immigrants to America is not likely to be large, for there will be plenty of work to be done abroad. Many inclined to come to this country will be discouraged by the literacy test.
Negro labor is coming into its own in America. The race, we believe, is aware of the greatest industrial opportunities open to it since the Civil War. The race should also be prepared, by efficiency, to meet this newer condition.26
Self-interest, the Age wrote in 1919, dictated that blacks should back a proposal before Congress to restrict immigration for four years. Passage of the bill, it predicted, would enable the race to establish such a solid position in industry that it would be difficult for anyone to replace them:27
[Black Americans] the opportunity to get a foothold in the economic world; there have been many grave doubts about their ability to keep this foothold when fierce competition set in again. The question arose in many minds, "Will the Negro be able to keep his new job when the aliens from Europe come back looking for work?"
Speaking purely from a motive of self interest, the American Negro can say that the passing of a law restricting immigration for four years is a good thing. In that period of time the colored man ought to be able to entrench himself so firmly in the industrial field that he cannot be easily driven out. In that period of time the colored man ought to be able to accomplish what seemed to be impossible during the war; and that is to so organize that he will cease to occupy the position of scab, but will demand recognition as an industrial factor.28
The Chicago Defender, in a 1921 piece, expressed much the same opinion about immigration restriction:
The New York-based magazine The Messenger pointed out in 1925 the economic benefits to blacks of the recent cutoff in immigration:
Opportunity, a journal published by the National Urban League, wrote in the same vein in 1926:
[black workers] the enormous pressure of yearly European immigration against their migration from the South to the industrial centers of the North, and this relationship has carried through the immigration legislation with a logic which seems to bind their industrial future to the policy of restriction . . . The census of 1920 shows a shift of 371,229 Negroes from agricultural pursuits to industry . . . What is most evident is that the gaps made by the reduction in immigrant labor have forced a demand for Negro labor despite theories regarding Negro labor not infrequently encountered among certain employers and some unions, which hold that they are neither needed nor desired.31
Although immigration from Europe fell sharply, it continued from Mexico. The Pittsburgh Courier wrote in 1927 about the threat to blacks from this continued flow, eerily foreshadowing events in our own day:
In 1928, the Courier wrote again about the danger to blacks from this employer-driven search for cheap labor:
The Courier nicely summed up the benefits for black Americans of ending mass immigration:
1.See Sidney M. Wilhelm. Who Needs The Negro? New York: Anchor, 1971.
2. Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, vol. 4. New York: International Publishers, 1954-1975, pp. 264-265.
3. Hellwig, David. "Black Reactions to Chinese Immigration and the Anti-Chinese Movement: 1850-1910." Amerasia 6:2 (1979), pp.25-44.
4. Man, Albon P. "Labor Competition and the New York Draft Riots of 1863." Journal of Negro History. vol. 36, pp. 375-405. 1951.
5. Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. vol. 2. New York: International Publishers, 1950, p. 224. Emphasis added.
6. Blassingame, John W. and John Mckivigan. The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, vol. 4. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 501-502.
7. Blassingame and Mckivigan, vol.4, p. 248.
8. Blassingame and Mckivigan, vol.4, p. 232. Emphasis added.
9. Foner, pp. 264-265. Emphasis added.
10. Blassingame and Mckivigan, vol. 2, p. 424.
11. Blassingame and Mckivigan, vol. 3, pp. 92-93. Emphasis added.
12. "Address Before the National Negro Business League." The Broad Ax, Aug. 24, 1912.
13. Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1903, p. 14. 0. Emphasis added.
14. Harlan, Louis R. The Booker T. Washington Papers, vol. 3. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1972-1974.
15. Harlan, Papers, vol. 2, pp. 193-194.
16. Harlan, Papers, vol. 6, p. 556.
17. Aptheker, Herbert. Writings by W.E.B. Du Bois in Non-Periodical Literature. New York: Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1982, p. 70. Emphasis added.
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