Minnesotans For Sustainability

 

Sustainable:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.

 

 

 

The Case Against Immigration:

On the Backs of Black Americans: The Past*

Roy Beck
1996

 

Displacement: 1820s Through 1850s
Intimidation: 1863
Closed Golden Door 1865-86
Overwhelmed: 1895-1924

Notes

 

(Immigration) may have played a crucial role in stopping black progress in the 1970s and in slowly reversing the progress ever since.

 

The plight of black Americans faced with the current flood of foreign workers has moved in the same direction it always has gone during high immigration: down.

After decades of steady improvement, the economic and social conditions for many black citizens have significantly deteriorated since the 1970s. The poverty rate of black Americans is triple the rate of all other Americans. One of every three black citizens now lives in poverty. To distinguish them from the majority of black Americans who have managed to hold on to middle-class status, we might call those in poverty the "failed black third."

To the National Academy of Sciences, the "failed black third" is a challenge to the conscience of the nation. "Americans face an unfinished agenda," it stated in 1989 after an expansive study. "Many black Americans remain separated from the mainstream of national life under conditions of great inequality. The American dilemma has not been resolved."

To Leroy Clark, a lawyer with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, crusade throughout the 1960s, Americans should deal with the "failed black third" for very practical reasons. All of us live more precarious lives because of that concentration of poverty, he says. "From the army of hungry, unemployed black teenagers, come the muggers, drug addicts and gang members who make our cities dangerous."

White Americans realize how bad life is for poor black Americans, according to a report in American Sociological Review. But most whites believe that blacks who fail do so because they don't work hard and are unable to delay gratification. The conservative black economist Walter Williams of George Mason University lays the blame largely on bad behavior: "If people would wait until they're married to have children and work when they have children, there would not be a poverty problem."1

Even if Williams is substantially correct, that raises a number of questions about the role of government policies that contribute to bad choices, behavior, and attitudes. What if federal policies make it difficult to find jobs especially ones that pay a family wage and make conventional family life seem possible? What if the federal immigration program has sapped economic hope and created social turmoil by bringing millions of foreign citizens to compete with the "failed black third" in their schools, in their workplaces, and in their neighborhoods?

Perhaps the "failed black third" is really the "sabotaged black third." While the government was purporting to help that segment of the population with myriad social programs, its immigration policies were undermining the benefits. That isn't to say that immigration created the social and economic pathologies of the black underclass. But it may have played a crucial role in stopping black progress in the 1970s and in slowly reversing the progress ever since.

          It is easy to believe that is the case because it has happened before several times.

          To review the black side of our nation's immigration tradition is to observe African Americans periodically trying to climb the mainstream economic ladder, only to be shoved aside each time. It is to see one immigrant wave after another climb onto and up that ladder while planting their feet on the backs of black Americans.

Before the Civil War, slaves who gained their freedom and moved north suffered constant setbacks as immigrants pushed them aside. After the Civil War ended, black Americans had barely begun to find niches in industries and trades when the Great Wave of immigration drove them backward. Thus, few black people were able to move into the middle class until after mass immigration ended in 1924. During the tight-labor, low-immigration era of 1940 to 1970, the middle class grew from 22 percent of black Americans to 71 percent! By 1970, though, mass immigration once again was on the upswing. Unfortunately, the march toward equality with whites stalled after that, and the black middle class has been shrinking since.

          The connections between high immigration and setbacks for black Americans are far too numerous and detailed to be dismissed as mere coincidence.
 

Displacement: 1820s Through 1850s
 

As badly as new immigrants often were treated by established Americans, even worse treatment was meted out to black Americans by the immigrants.


When Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838, he soon discovered that recently arrived immigrants were nearly as tenacious as slavemasters and bounty hunters in trying to keep a black man from freely competing in the labor markets of the North.

The rising tide of European immigrants who began to arrive in the 1820s found a considerable population of skilled free black Americans in the North. Some of the black workers were from families who had been free since the mid-1600s after the first Africans in Virginia and Maryland had worked out their terms of indentured servanthood. Many others had come as slaves and bought their freedom or been released by conscience-stricken owners, especially through wills upon their deaths. And others like Douglass simply had escaped. This modest army of black artisans and domestic workers had managed to stake a tenuous claim on the mainstream economy during the decades of relatively low immigration. But with the rapid increases of immigration in the 1820s and 1830s, free black Americans began to lose ground. Where most of New York City's domestic servant jobs had been filled by free black workers, the majority eventually were occupied by Irish immigrants. And the reason for the shift was not that black workers had moved to higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs. W.E.B. Du Bois later would note that the new immigrants proceeded methodically to drive northern black workers from their jobs of all kinds and to replace them. Violence was not an uncommon instrument.

For eight days in July 1834, for example, the immigrants' antagonism toward free black Americans in New York City boiled over into a full-scale riot, with attacks on black homes and churches. Immigrants feared that the free black Americans would undercut their chances for jobs and wage increases. In fact, it was the free black Americans who were being undercut by the immigrants, as the historian Adrian Cook has pointed out: "Employers preferred to hire immigrants, especially Germans, who would work long hours for low pay.2

Frederick Douglass witnessed the job competition firsthand, even before his escape from slavery. As a teenager he had been transferred by his rural slavemaster to a relative in Baltimore, where he was hired out to work among the immigrant shipbuilders on Fells Point. He learned the caulking trade at a shipyard that had a number of free black carpenters. The European-American workers at his Baltimore shipyard got rid of the free black workers by taking advantage of a tight deadline their employer was facing in building two large man-of-war brigs for the Mexican government. The white carpenters staged a walk-out, saying they would work no more unless the free black carpenters were fired, which they were. Conditions also grew more strained for the slaves on site, with the whites talking about the "niggers taking the country." Eventually, four of the men attacked Douglass with bricks, sticks, and handspikes, while some fifty others watched and shouted, "Kill the damned nigger! Kill him! kill him!"

Douglass later became a leading orator and author of the abolition movement as well as an ardent supporter of women's suffrage. A confidant of President Lincoln and holder of several distinguished federal offices, Douglass remained until his death in 1895 an uncompromising proponent of equal economic opportunities for black Americans. He towered over all other Americans in his advocacy of a colorblind, unified national society, and contended regularly with the pressures from immigration to drive black Americans out of the mainstream. Like many other black leaders over the last two centuries, Douglass saw mass immigration as a destructive tool in blocking African Americans from full economic and political freedom.

Douglass escaped to New York in 1838, then moved to Massachusetts. But as immigration continued to increase, the conditions for free black Americans in the North grew worse and slavery in the South was administered more harshly. Douglass would write: "The old employments by which we have heretofore gained our livelihood are gradually, and it may be inevitably, passing into other hands. Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived immigrant whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place."3

Rising immigration from the 1820s to the Civil War drove down wages for free black Americans and immigrants alike. Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert's macroeconomic history shows that between 1816 and 1856, the American Northeast was transformed from the "Jeffersonian ideal" to a society more typical of developing economics with marked income inequality and very low wages for laborers.

As badly as new immigrants often were treated by established Americans, even worse treatment was meted out to black Americans by the immigrants. Organizing themselves into trade unions, immigrant laborers helped set the terms of hiring at many urban workplaces. Not only would they not allow black workers into their unions, but they usually would refuse to work alongside them if they were hired. Many firms decided not to hire black workers, or to fire the ones already on the site, because of that refusal on the part of the more numerous immigrant workers.

By the 1850s, for example, free black workers had been driven out of most jobs on the New York City waterfront by the Irish immigrants who had gained control over the trades. Denied work through organized labor channels, black workers increasingly had to resort to gaining jobs by serving as strikebreakers an unsavory role they had to endure for another century, and one that engendered further hatred from the immigrant workers. Blacks also were restricted in their social life. A gang culture was much in control, with each immigrant group fighting for its own culture, and to determine who could live near them, sell in their neighborhoods, and socialize in their pubs.

It is not difficult to see the parallels with the cities of the 1990s.
 

Intimidation: 1863
 

But the main victims of the rioting immigrants were black citizens, more than a hundred of whom were killed ... The immigrants began grabbing black citizens at random.

Divisions in the North were especially pronounced during the Civil War. On the abolitionist side were the free black Americans and old established Protestants who joined as Republicans in backing Lincoln's war.

On the pro-slavery side in the North were the Democrats with their solid support from Catholic immigrants. From the strength of the Democratic appeal in northern immigrant cities, suggests the historian Eric Foner, one could question how a society like the North, in which racial hatred ran so deep, could secure justice for the emancipated slaves. And the popularity of the Democrats' pro-slavery stance helps explain how the North, after winning the war, so quickly abandoned the southern blacks.

Surely, the most dramatic manifestation of those northern divisions came on 13-17 July 1863 when New York City immigrants staged a riot so violent and such a threat to the city's continued loyalty to the Union that five Union Army regiments were ordered directly from the Gettysburg battlefield to suppress it. The riot ostensibly was a protest against a new military draft that appeared to allow the immigrants no way to get out of it. But the main victims of the rioting immigrants were black citizens, more than a hundred of whom were killed, with many more wounded and burned out of their homes.

The episode provides an example of how explosive it can be to continue to pour new immigrants into an already volatile labor market. The historian Iver Bernstein points out that job fears were at the heart of the incendiary social conditions of the time. First, New York already was oversupplied with unskilled foreign workers. Second, the federal government was promoting the importation of still more during the war. "Here it was easy for any group, no matter how well established, to feel threatened by the daily flood of new arrivals," Bernstein says.4 In the midst of that uncertainty, earlier immigrants were trying to protect their wages and jobs through assertive union activity. Free black workers were seen as a threat to union success because, after being barred by the immigrants from the unions, they made themselves available as strikebreakers. Further, the shipowners had decided just months before the July riot that they would use free black workers to break the Irish workers' strike.

In July, the rioting bands of immigrants mostly Irish seemed to focus on the free black population all of their anger at the anti-slavery movement, at the war, at the military draft, and at Protestant Republican efforts to reform the immigrants' use of alcohol, brothels, and so on. The immigrants began grabbing black citizens at random. Crowds surrounded them as if attending an impromptu theater where each member of the gang might perform an atrocity such as jumping on the black person, smashing him with a cobblestone, or plunging a knife into his chest.

Boys ran through the streets throwing stones through windows to identify where black residents lived. Rioting immigrants would pull the black residents from their homes, sometimes beating them and then letting them go, other times not stopping until they were dead. They cut off toes, they burned, they drowned, they lynched, they sexually mutilated, and they did their own version of tarring and feathering. Perhaps the most ghastly of acts occurred when rioters pulled a crippled black coachman named Abraham Franklin and his sister from their rooms. They "roughed up" the sister and dragged Franklin through the streets, finally lynching him on a lamppost. The military dispersed the crowd and cut the body down. But the immigrants, to cheers from the crowd, raised Franklin's corpse up the lamppost again as soon as the soldiers left. When the crowd later pulled the body down, Patrick Butler a sixteen-year-old Irish immigrant grabbed the corpse by the genitals and dragged it through the streets to the applause of the crowds.

As is common in outbreaks of anarchy, a minority of citizens were responsible. Many Democrats and immigrants joined Republicans in heroic efforts at keeping the carnage from being worse, although others tended to take the tone of the wife of Democratic Judge Charles Patrick Daly. She indicated great sorrow and outrage over what was done to the black citizens. But she also hoped the episode would "give the Negroes a lesson, for since the war commenced, they have been so insolent as to be unbearable. I cannot endure free blacks. They are immoral with all their piety."5

For the moment, it was the Republicans the champions of the war for emancipation on whom black Americans depended for protection and support. But although nearly all Republicans were antislavery, those who were also anti-immigration were in the process of losing the battle in their party. The ascendancy of a pro-immigration ideology in the Republican Party to serve the party's growing fixation on industrial growth soon would diminish black Americans' hope for full economic opportunity for at least another century.
 

Closed Golden Door 1865-86
 

Mass immigration helped slam the golden door shut on equality of opportunity for black Americans after the Civil War ... The unions were an essential force in keeping the ex-slaves out of the North. Nearly all of the unions dominated by immigrants barred blacks from membership.


The end of the Civil War opened a golden door of opportunity to black Americans, both those just freed from the chains of slavery and those who long had been free.

In an astounding burst of laws, constitutional amendments, and programs, the federal government sought to ensure full political, economic, and social rights to all Americans. But black Americans, especially those leaving their slavemasters, needed more than rights; they needed concrete means to make a living. Most of them had been farmworkers. Access to cheap or free land, such as that which had helped so many of their white countrymen get their start, would have been a wonderful assistance. So would have jobs that provided opportunity for advancement.

By happy circumstance, both new land and good jobs became available soon after the Civil War:

1. Land. Frontier settlement had barely crossed the Mississippi River at that time. Millions of acres of fertile and mineral-rich land lay unsettled to the West. The railroads were looking for masses of people to settle tracts of land along their lines.

2. Jobs. Businessmen throughout the country, but especially in the North, needed a new supply of workers for rapidly expanding industries.


If more black Americans had gotten in on the ground floor of both of those developments, they and their descendants would have had remarkably different lives. And all Americans today likely would be living in a much more harmonious and healthy society.

But it wasn't to be. Mass immigration helped slam the golden door shut on equality of opportunity for black Americans after the Civil War. The government allowed the railroads to offer the free land to European immigrants, barring all but a few black natives from settlement. And northern industrialists were allowed to fill their additional jobs with European immigrants.

High immigration solved an immense problem for the defeated southern landed aristocracy. The restoration of the plantation system depended on holding on to the ex-slaves. Eric Foner, the specialist on Reconstruction, says a major priority for both white southerners and northerners was to subdue former slaves into a sedentary agricultural work style in the South. During a brief window of opportunity after the war, many freed slaves made their way to the North and grabbed jobs that they held for years to come. But because of increasingly high immigration, most freed slaves did not get any of the new jobs up north or any of the new land out west.

The unions were an essential force in keeping the ex-slaves out of the North. Nearly all of the unions dominated by immigrants barred blacks from membership, Foner says.6 After the Civil war, for example, the bricklayers' union in Washington, D.C., forbade their men to work alongside blacks. The rule was deemed so important that when four white union men were discovered on the same government project with some black workers, the union unanimously voted to expel them. Frederick Douglass's family was victimized by the unions. Although he achieved great success as an author and journalist, as the U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia and as the U.S. Minister to Haiti, his four children were lucky to get jobs as clerks and printers. One of the printers, Lewis Douglass, was barred from the printers union and then vilified as a scab for later taking a job at below union wages for the U.S. Government Printing Office. White printers walked off the job in protest. Frederick Douglass said the union's treatment was like cutting off a man's ears and then claiming that this maiming now gave the right to pluck out his eyes.

High European immigration to the North between 1865 and 1875 not only blocked the jobs to which the ex-slaves might have escaped but it helped shift the northern political balance against Reconstruction. It was the loss of support for Reconstruction in the North that led to the federal abandonment of attempts to force the South to allow full legal rights of citizenship to the ex-slaves. Each year, the Republican Party's power in the North eroded as hundreds of thousands of immigrants entered the country, with most throwing their political lot in with the Democratic Party and its strong opposition to Reconstruction.

In referring to immigrants' participation in the virtual re-enslaving of black Americans, it is necessary to recall that the primary responsibility for the American institution of slavery lay with many of the English Protestants who settled the southern colonies. And it was English Protestants and Deists who were dominant among the founding fathers who enshrined slavery in the Constitution. Nonetheless, the core northern Republican support for the ex-slaves and Reconstruction in the 1870s came from the descendants of the English Protestant settlers. And the European immigrants then streaming into the major cities of the North were much more likely to adopt the anti-black stance of the Democrats.

The intense hostility of the Irish immigrants toward black Americans drew the notice of many writers of the time. Frederick Douglass marveled that a people who could be so warm-hearted and generous back on "their own green island" could so instantly hate and despise black Americans once on U.S. soil. A number of philanthropic merchants in New York City tried after the war to open the job market up to black workers; but the power of the immigrant organizations was too strong. Many cities had similar experiences as the burgeoning immigrant populations were able to form political machines and take control in city governments. Michael Lind has pointed out that the power often was enhanced because the immigrant-controlled political machines were overlaid with the underworld that had come from the old country with the immigrants. Especially in New York City where an alliance of Irish immigrants and southern Democrats had created the Tammany machine a strain of white supremacy ran through the new power structure.

Before the war, one of the leaders assured the southern states: "If ever a conflict arises between races, the people of the city of New York will stand by their brethren, the white race. We will never suffer you to be trampled upon by those of another blood."8 The Union's victory in the Civil War and the string of federally legislated civil rights acts for blacks did not stop the power structure's racist actions. Ena L. Farley, in The Underside of Reconstruction New York, notes that Tammany minions behaved like the Ku Klux Klan in a reign of terror to intimidate black citizens from voting.

Black residents not only lost their jobs to the new immigrants, according to Farley, "but the immigrants took up residence in city wards where their numerical majority made the black population politically impotent." Across the North in precincts with heavy immigrant settlement, votes on issues and candidates turned against the interests of both northern and southern black Americans. The hopes of ex-slaves in the South were dashed in northern cities that not only were losing interest in equal rights in the South but were creating stronger anti-Black systems in the North. New York State, Farley says, "emerged from the postwar deliberations, not with an acceptance of equality for African Americans, but with a definition of and acceptance of the idea of segregation."9 It is not surprising then that black residents of New York City opposed states' rights and showed a preference for federal protection like that given to southern blacks under Reconstruction.

Cinching the continued economic dependency of black Americans was the presidential political deal in 1877 to allow Republican Rutherford Hayes to become president after the razor-thin results of the election threw it into the hands of a special commission. After the backroom agreement, anti-black Democrats agreed not to block Hayes's election and Hayes agreed to recognize the Democrats' resumption of power in the southern states. Federal troops were withdrawn from the South, Reconstruction ended, and states' rights were reestablished as the dominant principle of government. Northern interests turned from the egalitarian goals of Reconstruction to industrial development. Page Smith says the new states' rights doctrine worked to the disadvantage of common citizens in all regions: "The same doctrine that allowed southern whites to thrust southern blacks back into a slavery in all but name gave free rein to the most rapacious instincts of the new class of capitalists."10 The northern industries could fill their jobs with new, inexpensive European immigrants, and any efforts to curb the Robber Barons were denounced as infringing on states' rights.

As in many other times, the means of subjugation of black Americans also hurt masses of white Americans. The South was full of impoverished whites who were landless. European immigration in the North blocked job opportunities for southerners who were white, as well as for those who were black. With large pools of white and black cheap labor trapped in the South, employers there had no reason to advance in technology, and the whole southern economy was left in a perpetual state of backwardness, says Gavin Wright in his authoritative life's work, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War. Wright found that unskilled whites were paid just about the same as unskilled blacks in the postwar South: "Owners were able to get white labor at a black wage."11 The South looked like a conquered, battered subregion for decades, but its loss in the Civil War may not have required that. Rather, the nation's shift to higher importation of foreign workers to the North and West kept the South a lowwage region in a high-wage country, a status it retained until after mass immigration was shut off for several decades after 1924.

Having allowed immigration policies to directly and indirectly lock most black Americans out of advancement, many of the Republicans who formerly were abolitionists grew impatient with the black Americans for their lack of progress. They suggested that maybe the government had done as much as was possible to help them. The Nation magazine on 1 August 1867 reflected the sentiment of the Republican reformers, saying: "The removal of white prejudice against the negro depends almost entirely on the negro himself." Because blacks were so lacking in the "ordinary claims to social respectability," the magazine reasoned, legislation could not be expected to counteract the natural inadequacies of the race. It was a striking turnaround from the Republican Party's lofty praise of black Americans just a few years earlier during the New York City draft riots; then, the party had lauded black citizens for their positive character, their resourcefulness, and the fact that they seldom asked for charity.

In a cold, economic sense, the steady flow of foreign workers had left the United States other than southern plantation owners with little need of the labor of its black citizens. Without economic value, it was easier for black Americans to be neglected by their former champions, the northern Republicans, who no longer fought as hard against the Democrats' efforts to weaken civil rights laws and to pull back on their enforcement.

The dismantling of Reconstruction sealed the fate of most black Americans to live under another half century of extreme economic exploitation, vigilante lynching, and other terrors, and with a status under the law barely above their former conditions of slavery. Immigration was one although certainly not the only one of the phenomena that helped kill Reconstruction.

It is difficult to overstate the long-term effect of new immigrants pushing black Americans aside in gaining jobs in new industries after the Civil War. Once the immigrants were in, they generated successive waves of immigrants whom they helped gain employment in the same industries. Gavin Wright says the pattern was reinforced by employers, who left much of the recruitment of new workers to the immigrant networks rather than expending money and energy into recruiting available native-born workers especially black and white southerners.12

Only when World War I cut off the supply of immigrant workers did northern employers have to recruit black workers and learn how to integrate them into their workforce, says the economist Warren C. Whatley, of the University of Michigan. The black workers, particularly from the South, were at an obvious disadvantage. It had been a half century since the end of the Civil War. During all of that time, the waves of European immigrants had been learning the skills of working in the industries through family and ethnic connections. Black workers, though, had been left behind in the technological age. The new Irish and German and other immigrants could not boast a better capacity for industrial tasks than blacks, but for a half century they got the jobs and the experience.

If firms during World War I were struck by the black workers' awkwardness with the new jobs, they were likely to attribute that to an inferior group characteristic rather than to the fact that they had been kept out of industry for several decades. Whatley says models of statistical discrimination show that such "imperfect beginnings can have lasting consequences, for even if employers subsequently learn the true abilities of these workers, a rational employer may still discriminate against them in promotion so that their true ability is not revealed to other employers."13 Since members of groups discriminated against in such ways receive less reward for their job skills, they have less incentive to invest in their own development, thus creating a vicious cycle. Black Americans' decades-late start and the resulting ripples of discrimination from their "imperfect beginnings" hampered their rise inside corporations for years, and doubtless are factors that are behind some of the drags on upward mobility even in the 1990s.

By looking at what happened to black employment in the North when immigration was cut off during World War I, we can gain a glimpse of what might have happened in the 1870s and 1880s had there not been high immigration. In the 1915-19 period of low immigration, between 400,000 and 500,000 black southerners migrated to the industrial belt stretching from New York to Chicago. In Cincinnati, for example, 33 percent of firms had at least one black worker in 1915. By the end of 1918, the percentage was 50. All told, the black share of industrial employment doubled in Cincinnati, as it did in most of that belt of cities; in Detroit, the increase was tenfold. One cannot help but wonder how different American history would be had that black migration occurred fifty years earlier.

The 1865-75 surge in immigration undercut Reconstruction, and the much larger Great Wave that began in 1880 effectively stopped all but a few black Americans from getting in on the industrial ground floor. In 1886, the nation celebrated its commitment to freedom with the inauguration of the Statue of Liberty. That year and nearly every year for almost three more decades, ship after ship sailed past the statue, laden with immigrants whose arrival coincided with the substantial rollback in economic gains many black Americans had struggled to achieve since the Civil War.

That same year, a weary Frederick Douglass, no longer trusting in America's altruism, appealed to the nation's own self-interest in domestic tranquility. The aging author-orator thundered: "The American people have this lesson to learn: That where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."

While Lady Liberty's torch of freedom captured the attention of most sightseers and new immigrants, it was her feet that held the most symbolism for America's increasingly forgotten black citizens. Around the feet, Frdric-Auguste Bartholdi had sculpted the broken chains of slavery. There is no indication that any of the millions of immigrants arriving after 1886 had any thought of helping to re-enslave black Americans; they simply were taking advantage of an invitation from predominantly English-descent industrialists to improve their own economic circumstances. But as mass immigration economically marginalized America's black population, the freed slaves and their descendants felt the country's economic structure and laws steadily reattach most of the old shackles, not to be loosened again and then only briefly until World War I, when flotillas of immigrant ships stopped sailing past the statue.
 

Overwhelmed: 1895-1924
 

... but the nation's immigration policy would keep most of the better jobs out of reach ... the political power of the immigrant-controlled cities and the cheap-labor industrialists was just enough to keep the foreign labor supply flowing ...  The captains of industry had great assistance from the unions in setting up a system that denied full economic freedom to black Americans.


Frederick Douglass died in
Washington, D.C., on 20 February 1895. He knew that many black Americans at the time were not much better off than they had been in slavery. In 1900, for example, 87 percent of all blacks still were farmworkers or household servants in the South.

Words Douglass had written much earlier still stood at his death: "It is true that we are no longer slaves, but it is equally true that we are not yet quite free. We have been turned out of the house of bondage, but we have not yet been fully admitted to the glorious temple of American liberty. We are still in a transition state and the future is shrouded in doubt and danger."

The autumn after Douglass died, Booker T. Washington delivered an impassioned address to a large gathering of industrialists, beseeching them to stop looking to immigration to man their factories. It was a last-ditch effort to give black workers a chance at getting off the plantations and onto the ground floor of industrial prosperity.

The great educator from Tuskegee, Alabama, used the story of a ship that had been lost at sea and had finally sighted another vessel. When the distressed ship signaled that its crew was dying of thirst, the other vessel signaled back, "Cast down your bucket where you are," a salty-sounding suggestion that made little sense. The exchange was repeated three times before the captain at last lowered his bucket and brought up fresh water, for he was in the 200-mile-wide mouth of the Amazon River.

Washington then brilliantly showed the illogic of industries crossing oceans to recruit millions of workers in foreign lands when they were surrounded by vast pools of the very thing they were seeking. "To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits . . . ," Washington cried to the industrialists, "cast down your bucket where you are. Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know . . . ." He reminded them that black workers had not engaged in the strikes and labor wars so common to the immigrant workers. He asked them to cast down their buckets and hire blacks who "shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one."

What captured white Americans' attention and what is most remembered today was the other part of Washington's speech that essentially waved aside issues such as racial integration and stressed instead the importance of teaching manual skills to the black masses and of opening jobs to them. The speech turned Washington into America's chief black leader and powerbroker for the next twenty years. Newspapers in the North and South reprinted the address. President Cleveland wrote to express his enthusiasm for the speech. In later years and to this day, many black Americans criticize Washington as an Uncle Tom because he conceded so many issues of integration and seemed to accept second-class citizenship. Page Smith points out, however, that Washington had no alternative. He knew integration was a lost cause at least for his generation, and was shrewd enough to press for what was possible: access to better jobs and improved relations with whites by proving black Americans' importance to the overall economy.14

If Washington had been successful in persuading white leaders to stop or even moderate the Great Wave of immigration, that might have done far more to improve the overall status of freed slaves and their descendants than any direct integration efforts. In Washington's words: "No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized." But it was not to be. A few philanthropic whites would fund the Tuskegee Institute, and Booker T. Washington could train any number of black Americans, but the nation's immigration policy would keep most of the better jobs out of reach.

The year after Washington's speech, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of segregation for the next half century by declaring that the establishment of separate black and white facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

In 1897, Congress almost gave Booker T. Washington the curtailment of immigration he had sought. It voted to stop the bulk of the foreign labor flow. But President Cleveland's enthusiasm for Washington's "cast down your bucket" speech didn't extend to showing any sympathy for Washington's key concerns. Cleveland vetoed the immigration-restriction bill, ensuring that some 14 million more Europeans would move into the job line ahead of 8 million black Americans before World War I cut off immigration temporarily.

The shackles tightened. In 1898, the Supreme Court found that a Mississippi plan to take the vote from black citizens was not unconstitutional. With most of their rights stripped away, black Americans suffered even more intensely from the wave of foreign workers than they had earlier. Black losses in the North were exemplified by Steelton, Pennsylvania. Steel production had begun there in 1866. Freed slaves from Virginia and Maryland used their newly won freedom of movement to apply for jobs. During that brief period of industrial opportunity after the Civil War, many northern free black workers and southern freed slaves grabbed jobs especially in towns distant from the immigrant port cities that they still had not relinquished by the time of Washington's speech. John E. Bodnar writes that a flourishing black community in the 1890s in Steelton had three churches, its own news-paper, and several blacks in the police force, and would soon have a member on the town council. A significant percentage of black workers had moved up the job ladder at the steel mill, as well.

But within months of Washington's speech in 1895, a large wave of Italians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Bulgarians broke over Steelton, and this was followed by one wave after another until World War I. Bodnar found that the immigration had a "devastating impact upon the town's black working force." Black workers stopped progressing up the job ladder, they lost semi-skilled occupations to the Slavs and Italians, and many were forced to leave town in search of work. The black population declined.15

Job displacement was occurring in all cities. In 1870, of all black men in Cleveland, 32 percent had skilled jobs; by 1910, only 11 percent were in skilled trades. "It did not take Jim Crow laws to drive blacks out of such jobs in the North, which could draw on a huge pool of immigrant labor flowing into the cities," says Lawrence Fuchs of Brandeis University.16

History has repeated itself at the end of the twentieth century, as a new wave of immigration has driven black Americans out of the North once again. Just as new civil rights laws of the 1960s seemed to be opening great new opportunities for black people, the high flow of foreign workers into the highest wage cities in the North and West tended to block many black Americans from taking advantage of those new opportunities. For a half century under low immigration, the black population had been shifting from low-wage southern centers to the North and West. But then in the 1970s, northern and western black residents began moving back to the South. Demographer William Frey of the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center discovered in the early 1990s that tens of thousands of native-born Americans were being pushed out of centers of upward mobility by immigrants. Black and white Americans with low skills were the most likely to leave the high-wage centers and to move to states with lower wages."17

If members of Congress and successive presidents since 1965 had been more familiar with the black side of our immigration tradition, they might not have been so apathetic about the ever-increasing flow of foreign workers. Anybody concerned about fulfilling the spirit of the civil rights era would have been given pause by a look back a century ago at what happened in interior industrial centers such as Pittsburgh, McKeesport, Wilkes-Barre, and Johnstown in Pennsylvania; Lorain in Ohio; and Buffalo in New York. In tight-labor conditions immediately after the Civil War, those cities had needed the migration of black labor. They witnessed black growth that was modest in numbers but almost explosive in terms of percentages. With the biggest surge of immigration after 1899, however, black growth in those cities essentially stopped or populations actually declined.

High immigration to the nation's cities had assured that the black worker "would have to start his economic climb over again from the bottom," Bodnar says.18

In hindsight, it is easy to regard the immigration policies during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age a century ago as an incredible, national racist conspiracy against the freed slaves and their descendants. That is painting with too broad a brush, however. The majority of white citizens never asked for the surges in immigration and never approved of them when they occurred. As we saw in Chapter 2, the white majority repeatedly elected members of Congress who overwhelmingly tried to stop the Great Wave. But the political power of the immigrant-controlled cities and the cheap-labor industrialists was just enough to keep the foreign labor supply flowing.

The captains of industry had great assistance from the unions in setting up a system that denied full economic freedom to black Americans.

Immigrant leaders used the further influx of foreign workers to increase their domination of unions. The ethnic-immigrant control of unions effectively blocked black Americans from reasonable access to the better-paid union jobs until well after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, according to Herbert Hi11.19

Roy Wilkins, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), brought the immigrant union problem to the fore during the battle to pass the civil rights laws in the 1960s. While the unions tended to support laws precluding businesses from discriminating against blacks, most unions successfully had fought legal requirements that they also have non-discriminatory practices. As in pre-Civil War New York, about the only way many businesses could hire black people for skilled jobs in any numbers was as strikebreakers and scab labor. The NAACP's aggressive challenge to the unions almost split the coalition that eventually was successful in pushing through the 1960s civil rights laws, but Wilkins made clear that black Americans no longer would be junior partners with liberal whites whose institutions often were in conflict with the best interests of the black community.

Wilkins denounced the discriminatory practices throughout AFLCIO unions, but heaped special condemnation on the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The union began in 1900, heavily influenced by the socialist traditions of the Russian and Polish Jews who were flooding New York City at the time. Like other immigrant nationalities before them, they quickly organized in ways that shut out black workers. Hill's study concluded that the garment union's six-decade discrimination against black Americans resulted not from a conscious racist ideology but from intense ethnic protectiveness that tried to ensure all benefits and power for immigrant members. After Congress greatly reduced immigration in 1924, for example, the garment unions found they needed black workers; but they still kept them out of the more skilled, better-paying trades, and barred them from union leadership through a series of restrictive procedures finally highlighted in the 1960s by the New York State Commission for Human Rights and the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor.

There have always been those who looked at the poor economic condition of a disproportionately large segment of black Americans and said it proves the inferiority of their innate intelligence or their culture or their character; they point out that one immigrant group after another has arrived in the United States poor or destitute and has overcome hostile barriers, moving solidly into the middle class. Blaming slavery for current black problems is said to be a cop-out; after all, the Civil War ended nearly 150 years ago. What the critics of black Americans fail to realize is that black workers from the Civil War of the 1860s to the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, and even to the present, have been systematically blocked from the economic base that made possible the celebrated achievements of immigrant communities. And often, it has been the immigrants themselves who blocked the black Americans.20

The filling of the trade unions with European immigrants decades ago, and the barring of most black workers from membership, continues to have repercussions throughout the U.S. economy. Although they make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, for example, black Americans contribute less than 5 percent of the nation's 1.28 million carpenters.

In many ways, the situation for black Americans is getting worse, according to the Chicago Tribune. Chicago's population is nearly 40 percent black, but in September 1994 only about I1 percent of the skilled trades hours on the huge new main post office were worked by black tradesmen. While black workers have yet to break the stranglehold of earlier waves of European immigrants on Chicago's trade unions, they are losing ground as new immigrants move in ahead of them. There has been a huge surge in Latin American immigration into the Chicago region. Black residents still outnumber Latinos by nearly 2 to 1 in the population, but there now are just as many Latino as black painters in the region. And Latinos outnumber black carpenters by a 3 to 2 margin.21

It seems that little has changed from a hundred years ago. The unions and employers continue to prefer new immigrants over the descendants of slavery. In carpentry, the largest skilled trade, Latinos have been allowed entrance in almost exactly the same proportion as their presence in the Chicago population-20 percent. But nearly 150 years after the Civil War, black workers aren't even close to a fair representation-about 15 percent of carpenters and 40 percent of the population.

A review of the record suggests that black Americans after the Civil War "did everything they possibly could to neutralize racism and advance their economic fortunes," Ena Farley concludes. "They failed, not because of any fault in their own strategies, but because the racial barriers set up by the dominant group were too unyielding."22 One of the most important tools in building barriers black Americans could not surmount was the federal policy of mass immigration.

From Frederick Douglass to Booker T. Washington to W. E. B. Du Bois to hundreds of other leaders, African Americans did not suffer the insults of immigration silently. Until the Great Wave was stopped in 1924, African-American newspapers, preachers, politicians, and scholars throughout the country vehemently denounced the importation of European, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese workers. The descendants of slavery learned from what they saw and experienced in the labor marketplace, and turned it into a militant anthem of insistence that the government stop using immigration to displace black Americans from their jobs, housing, health care, and other services.

It is not unusual in the 1990s to hear white commentators give impassioned pleas to keep the immigration gates opened wide, because to do less would dishonor their parents or grandparents who got into the United States through similarly open gates.

But they never seem to imagine the dishonor and deep historical insult their advocacy brings to today's black Americans. The ancestors of the "failed black third" repeatedly were displaced, intimidated, and overwhelmed by the European-immigrant ancestors of many of those who advocate today for a level of immigration that continues to disadvantage African Americans.

The white appeals to continue immigration on the basis of tradition are like saying to black Americans, "Because our ancestors delayed your ancestors' economic development, it is only right to bring in more immigrants today to delay your progress." Or, to paraphrase Frederick Douglass's expression of cruel irony, it is like saying, "Because our ancestors cut off your ancestors' ears, we now have the right to pluck out your eyes."

Notes


Continue to Chapter 9: On the Backs of Black Americans: The Present
______
Used with permission of the author.
* Chapter 8
Beck, Roy. 1996;
The Case Against Immigration: The moral, economic, social, and environmental reasons for reducing
U.S. immigration back to traditional levels. W. W. Norton & Company. New York

 

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