Much of the country's attention for several months has been focused on the disproportionate joblessness, low incomes, poverty and overall economic inequality that beset Black Americans.
Lots of politicians are attempting to at least sound like they want to do something. But very few seem to realize that U.S. history -- especially from the 1940s and 1950s -- provides proof of how reducing immigration and tightening the labor market may be one of the most effective tools for advancing racial equality.
Even those who are skeptical about the benefits of reducing overall immigration should at least pledge to work for immigration systems that do NOT UNDERMINE the economic advancement of Black Americans.
We need to combat the ignorance about the role that the renewal of mass immigration in 1965 -- and acceleration in 1990 -- has played in halting the great Black march into the middle class.
THE BLACK ECONOMIC PROGRESS DURING 1924-1965 LOW IMMIGRATION
In a book published by W.W. Norton & Co. in the mid-'90s, I wrote the following, which sadly remains valid in this summer of burning discontent:
The uncompleted agenda of economic and political equality of opportunity for the descendants of American slavery ranks as perhaps our most troubling and pervasive national agony.
No social problem seems untouched by the acrimony of racial recriminations that rises out of the failure to end the massively disproportionate presence of Blacks in poverty.
Despite a thriving, large population of well-educated, well-paid, highly productive Black Americans, one-third of the total Black population seems intractably stuck in poverty--and the number has been increasing throughout most of this era of rising immigration.
Little known to most Americans, the 1924 to 1965 period of low immigration contained the economic golden era not only for immigrants but for Black Americans.
According to papers in the "Journal of Economic Literature," tight-labor conditions during that time helped all Americans to make impressive gains. Real incomes of white males, for example, expanded two-and-one-half-fold between 1940 and 1980.
But for Black men, they quadrupled, rapidly closing the gap between races.
MOST BLACK ECONOMIC PROGRESS CAME BEFORE '60s CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS
Incredibly, most of the closing of the wage gap -- and most of the advancement of Black Americans into the middle class -- occurred before 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed.
But Congress in 1965 did NOT think about what its immigration decisions would do to Black economic progress. Instead, they also in 1965 passed a massive immigration act that led the way -- after more reckless action by Congress in 1990 -- to more than quadrupling the arrival of foreign workers to compete in the labor market.
Before 1965, racism -- and the absence of civil rights laws and affirmative action -- could not halt phenomenal economic progress for Black Americans during the tight-labor conditions that were assisted by low immigration.
If the Black economic trends in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s had continued, America would be a far different society today. But progress for the average Black wage earner stalled in 1973. The rapid ballooning of the labor supply has conspired to strike most Americans, but Black Americans have been hit the hardest.
During renewed mass immigration, the wage gap between Black and White workers has widened since 1973.
A CHALLENGE TO US FROM THE '90s
In 1993, Eugene McCarthy and I addressed a crowded Senate hearing room on the subject of immigration. Those of you who are younger may not remember that McCarthy was the anti-Vietnam-war peace candidate who knocked Pres. Lyndon Johnson out of the Democratic Primaries of 1968. More significant to the main topic here, Sen. McCarthy was one of the prime sponsors of the 1965 immigration act that has led to so much suffering.
The elder statesman explained that the increase in immigration had been unintended. He said the increases have been immensely harmful to the country and should be rolled back.
When challenged by a reporter about whether reducing annual immigration would be an immoral action, McCarthy stated firmly that the moral priority for the United States remained that of addressing the descendants of two centuries of slavery and another century of racial apartheid who remain in the underclass. Large-scale immigration was interfering with meeting Black Americans' needs, he said.
That same year on the night of March 11, listeners of the liberal alternative radio station WBAI in New York City heard Vernon Briggs of Cornell University and a lifelong union advocate make a similar plea.
The treatment of the African-American population is a national blemish of the highest order, and every policy ought to be judged on the following criteria: that it does no harm to the African-American population.
Briggs acknowledged that there are a lot of different opinions about what the government should DO to help the "failed Black third."
But everybody should be agreed on what the government should NOT DO: Washington should not do anything that harms Black Americans, "and that's what our immigration policy is doing."
A quarter-century later, let's pick up the torch from Vernon Briggs and Eugene McCarthy and challenge every politician to take the pledge to stop all immigration policies that are impeding the opportunity of Black Americans . . .
- to enter the labor market,
- to be recruited for a job,
- to receive a fair wage and working conditions,
- to climb career ladders and fully share in the economic success of the nation.
Many opponents of lower immigration have argued against reducing the flow of foreign workers to help Black Americans, claiming that such a policy would pit Blacks against Hispanics and other minorities.
But any immigration policy that economically helps Black Americans will help economically depressed Hispanics. And recent immigrants and their children from all over the world often are helped even more than descendants of American slavery by immigration policies that would move low-income Black Americans into the middle class.
Skeptical White Americans should not fear immigration policies designed to stop harming Black Americans. Economic historians show us from past periods of low immigration and tight labor markets that the immigration conditions that aid Black Americans end up aiding struggling Americans of all races and ethnicities.
Who will act to help all of them?
ROY BECK is Founder & President of NumbersUSA
This blog ran in a slightly different form on Labor Day.
Updated: Tue, Oct 13th 2020 @ 5:00pm EDT