Human Rights

More on Blacks and Immigration

The last in a three-part series examines the roots and reasoning of some African-American communities' anti-immigration views.
"Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant." A century and a half ago, a deeply conflicted Frederick Douglass saw immigration as a looming threat to the fragile economic gains that Northern blacks had made in some trades and industries.

The famed black abolitionist and pioneer civil rights champion was no lone voice in denouncing immigration. Black leaders waged ferocious fights with each other over ideology, politics and leadership, but they closed ranks on immigration. "The continual stream of well-trained European laborers flowing into the West," warned educator Booker T. Washington in an 1882 speech, "leaves Negroes no foothold."

Washington's great fear was that immigration would displace Northern blacks from manufacturing industries and that Southern landowners would use cheap European and Asian labor to boot blacks off the land. Educator and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois railed against Washington's racially accommodationist views. Yet, like Washington, he attacked immigration as a dire threat to blacks. He accused "the Northern industrialist of the promotion of alien immigration to eliminate black workers, and depress wages."

During and immediately following World War I, millions more Eastern and Southern Europeans poured into the country to escape war, poverty, hunger and anti-Semitic pogroms. Many were poorly educated, marginally skilled workers who crowded the cities and muscled blacks out of the bottom-rung manufacturing and farm jobs. Black leaders and rabidly racist, America-first anti-immigration proponents screamed loudly for Congress to stop the flood.

In an editorial in 1919, the New York Age, a black newspaper, skipped the niceties. "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." Two years later, the Chicago Defender, which had virtually become the bible for black American readers by the early 1920s, chimed in, "The restrictions recently placed upon immigration to these shores ought to help us if they do not help anybody else." In a speech in 1920, black nationalist Marcus Garvey painted an even scarier picture of what unchecked immigration could mean for blacks: "We will be out of jobs, and we will be starving." It was vintage, over the top, stir-the-masses Garvey rhetoric. But it pricked a public nerve.

When Congress passed a racially exclusionary anti-immigration bill in 1924, the black press cheered madly. The Immigration Act of 1924 barred entry of "aliens ineligible to citizenship." Because Japanese and other Asians were barred by a 1790 law stipulating that "whites only" could be naturalized, the 1924 act effectively ended the immigration of all Asians into the United States.

The radical, pro-Socialist, pro labor Messenger instantly hailed the bill as a victory for black workers and claimed that it would open up more jobs. A year later, the National Urban League's house organ, Opportunity, which championed black professional and business interests and relentlessly opposed the Messenger's pro-Socialist views still applauded the anti-immigrant assault: "The gaps made by the reduction in immigrant labor have forced a demand for Negro labor despite theories which hold that they are neither needed nor desired."

The 1924 restrictive immigration law didn't totally allay black fears that immigration would unhinge their tenuous economic plight. Some blacks viewed Mexican immigrants as the new threat to black jobs. In 1927, the Pittsburgh Courier pushed the panic button and warned that Mexican immigrants would "menace" blacks' position in industry. "The Mexicans are being used as laborers on the railroads, on public works and on the farms, thus taking the places of many Negro workers." The Courier did not blame Mexican immigrants for taking jobs, but regarded them as pathetic pawns of greedy, unscrupulous employers to depress wages, labor standards and sow divisions with black workers.

Though the Courier nailed employers for exploiting illegal immigrants, it did not take the next logical step and urge black workers, labor groups and civil rights leaders to join with Mexican workers and fight for better wages, fair hiring practices and improved labor standards, and against Jim Crow segregation that impoverished black and Mexican workers. This was the pre-Depression era of naked, laissez-faire capitalism, and the black press and black leaders banked on the goodwill of white corporate employers for black economic gains. The Courier wailed that Mexican immigrants would snatch jobs from blacks in public works and railroads in the 1920s. But the estimated million or so Mexican illegal immigrants that trickled into the United States then was relatively low. They were mostly concentrated in the Southwest and posed no direct threat to blacks in the industrial North. Yet, in singling out Mexican illegal immigration as a potential danger to blacks in the 1920s, the Courier gave verbal ammunition to opponents of illegal immigrants that some blacks decades later would eagerly pick up and use.

Starting more than a century ago, Douglass, Washington, DuBois, Garvey and the black press sounded alarms over legal and illegal immigration. They forged a strange alliance with conservative and even fringe anti-immigrant groups to finger-point immigrants as the ultimate peril to blacks. As the national debate rages over illegal immigration, some black leaders and their strange bedfellows are doing the same thing again.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).
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