People of color & work in the US
compiled by Professor Amory Starr
Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White
Stephen Steinberg, The Ethnic Myth
I’m going to give you a little tour of ‘people of color’ and work in the US. After the civil war, the freed slaves wanted land. You may have heard the phrase “40 acres and a mule”. And this was done temporarily in some places. But very quickly that land was restored to the white landowners, leaving most slaves landless. The system of sharecropping emerged. In this system, freed slaves did much the same sort of work they had done, but they were officially being paid. But this wasn’t the end of the story. Since the slaves now had to buy items for their basic needs like food and clothing from the owners, they were constantly in debt. This could be called “debt slavery”. So the end of what was called “chattel slavery” meant that the person’s body was no longer owned, but since their debt was owned they still didn’t have much freedom or self-determination. And African American sharecropping still exists in this country. In the South there was a period immediately after the civil war in which many African Americans were independent tradesmen and small business owners, but Jim Crow targeted these people and much of the independent Black economy was destroyed.
Today we see some similar situations with Asian and other immigrants who pay a high fee to be smuggled into the country and are then kept indebted so they must work under terrible conditions until their debt is paid off. Since folks who are in this situation are rarely literate, they sometimes cannot keep records and there is a lot of deception that goes on in which the owner of the debt charges exhorbitant interest or says the debt is not paid when it has already been. When people are illegal immigrants, they cannot go to the law for help with unscrupulous people who hold their debt.
In the Northern cities, African Americans were restricted to domestic service until WWI, but then were able to enter industry during the war. Most men escaped domestic labor into factories. Mangers hired African Americans to break white strikes. Some unions saw this tactic and organized interracially. By the 1940s, the major unions became interracial in order to prevent African Americans being used as strike breakers. During WWII African American labor was again needed in industry and they experienced some improvements. Women of all races went to work in traditionally male jobs to keep the economy going.
Now the Irish. From 1815 to 1920, 5.5 million Irish emigrated to the US and most did not want to come. [140-141] They came because the British colonization of Ireland was brutal and impoverished Irish peasants terribly. Because they were forced to live on so little land, they survived on just potatoes. Between 1845 and 1855 the potato famine killed around a million people which also spurred immigration.  The conditions on the boats were so bad that 20% of the people died. Once here, they were described as “Black” and they were used to do the most dangerous work. They built the Eastern railroad lines and it was said there’s “an Irishman buried under every tie” . Before the end of slavery, Irish were sent to the South to do dangerous work because as wage laborers they had no value, while African slaves were valuable property for their owners.  Irish were called “niggers” because “nigger work” was any very hard work. In Northern cities, Irish and African Americans were co-segregated. Irish were sympathetic to African slaves and there were strong emancipation movements both in Ireland and among Irish in America. There is a very interesting book out now called “How the Irish became White”.
The first wave of Chinese emigration to the US was in 1849 was voluntary and male. They left wives at home in what they thought was a temporarily arrangment. They were independent gold miners. But at the end of the gold rush, they went to work on the railroad and Chinese are to be credited with beuiliding the Central Pacific line. After building the railroad, they worked in factories in San Francisco and became tenant farmers. They shared their agricultural knowledge from China and were a major contributing factor to the switch from wheat to produce. Also designed and built irrigation systems in dry central valleys which went on to supply much of the produce for the US. In the late 1800s, anti-Chinese regulations in the factories drove urban Chinese into segregated businesses, like laundries. Chinese also migrated through the US and worked on Southern plantations for some time. For a long time the only Chinese women who did come were not voluntary and were brought over as prostitutes in debt peonage.
When the US laid claim to parts of Mexico that are now the SouthWestern US, Chicanos found themselves working only the worst jobs even though they were on their native land. These residents of California, New Mexico, and Arizona found themselves classified alternately as white, Indian, and Black during different moments. They worked the worst jobs. In the early 1900s, Mexicans were invited to the US because their labor was needed in agriculture and in service in hotels. Mexicans were particularly recruited during periods of anti-Asian sentiment when Asian immigration was illegalized, resulting in labor shortages in the West. Mexicans and Chicanos were paid less than Anglos in the same work.Women worked in garment factories, food processing plants, and canneries. Men worked on the railroads and did almost all of the copper mining that was so important to the implementation of electricit in the US. They were subject to debt peonage as agricultural workers both men and women. Their wages were kept low by keeping a lot of workers fighting for the same jobs.
Jews came from Russia and eastern Europe beginning in the 1880s. They were fleeing the pogroms, which were basically violent attacks supported by the state. Jews, unlike many other immigrants, were already urban, literate, and had factory-type skills. They worked in sewing trades and were responsible for many innovations. The women suffered a lot in the sweatshops which had 11-15 hour days, rapid pace, and many accidents, including fires. In 1911, 800 women workers (mostly Jews and Italians) were trapped in a burning 9-story building. They jumped from the windows and 146 of them died. (This is the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy.) Many were teenageers. These very women had gone on strike 2 years earlier for safer working conditions but their union effort had failed. Jews had the skills to become small-scale traders, but they were segregated in housing in the US as they had been in Europe and were not allowed to enter many professions.
Japanese also came during the late 1800s due to agricultural policies which were hard on peasant farmers in Japan. Japanese immigrants went to Hawai’i and California, where they worked as agricultural laborers. They also worked in fish canneries. Unlike the Chinese immigration, Japanese women came early as “picture brides” and also as agricultural laborers. Japanese also managed to buy their own small farms in California and in the first decades of the 1900s they produced most of the strawberries, tomatoes, and celery. They were very good farmers. Most of these farms were confiscated when Japanese-American citizens were interned during WWII.
Divide & Conquer: Strong Irish union in shoemaking. Broken by bringing in Chinese workers. Mexican and European American miners. Salt of the Earth. for a long time heavy industry trade unions didn’t allow African Americans. In Hawai’I plantation owners imported Koreans and later Filipinos as well as Japanese in hopes of preventing the workers from unifying. But Mexicans formed interracial unions with Japanese and Filipinos.
It’s important to understand the different histories of different ethnic groups and different immigration groups.
- not everyone was an immigrant. some people were living here before the US was created. Chicanos and Native Americans. some people were brought as slaves, or kidnapped to be prostitutes, or deceived in debt peonage arrangements.
- of the people who came more or less of their own free will, very few wanted to come. some were escaping various forms of war. Today most of the vietnamese in this country and many of the recent immigrants from central america are fleeing war and they have war trauma. they’ve seen their families killed before their eyes etc. many others are fleeing economic situations that are so brutal that they cannot survive at home. many wish they could return home, that it would be safe and they could have a decent life as a farmer.
- Some did come in search of riches. Somehow there were many stories of “gold mountain” and “gold in the streets” which
- people came with very different skills which had a big effect on how they did when they got here. Irish, Japanese, Chinese, and many Latinos came directly from farming. Jews came from cities. Jews were already literate and accustomed to factory work and urban life. For the Irish in particular city life was shocking and devastating. They missed their relationship to the land and nature and music. This was actually a basis for their connection with African Americans, who had close relationships to the land as slaves. Irish and African Americans also recognized some similar relationships to music. In terms of peoples’ skills, we are still recruting Filipino immigrants because they have already good educations and high skills, so they are a major supplier of nurses for example. In the Phillippines they are very concerned about what they call the “brain drain”. We also find the case of recent immigrants from Latin America and Africa who are professors, doctors, and so forth who come as refugees of war, but Americans refuse to hire them for the work they are trained for so they work as taxi drivers and janitors, which must be traumatic.
- More recently, some immigrants have been able to come with money. Koreans and Cubans in this country were generally able to escape with enough capital to start their own businesses, which is very different from the situations of Vietnamese.
- the punchline to the differences I’ve been discussing and Steinberg really explains this well in his book, is that it’s hard to compare the economic accomplishments of different groups when they’ve had such very different experiences here. Why do some groups seem to do well and others not?