Posted on January 19, 2022

A Major Culprit in the Wage Gap Between Blacks and Whites Is America’s Immigration Policy

Frank Morris, Chicago Tribune, January 10, 2022

The median white household owns over 10 times as many assets as the median Black household — a gap that has actually widened since the civil rights victories of the 1960s.


But one of the biggest — yet most underexplored — culprits is America’s immigration policy. Throughout our nation’s history, employers have preferred to hire newly arrived foreigners, who will often work for rock-bottom wages, instead of Black workers.

When policymakers have periodically scaled back the influx of those foreign laborers, Black Americans’ earnings have soared — only to fall again once our leaders turn the immigration spigots back on. Humanely limiting immigration is a matter of racial and economic justice for Black Americans.

As Roy Beck’s new book, “Back of the Hiring Line,” thoroughly documents, Black Americans enjoy good economic opportunities only in tight labor markets. That’s why, in the decades following the Civil War, Black leaders like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph all favored restricting immigration to help free enslaved people and their descendants.

At the time, racist employers were passing over Black workers and instead hiring new European immigrants to staff the sweatshops, meatpacking plants and other mainstays of the late 19th- and early 20th-century industrial economy.

It wasn’t until Congress dramatically slashed immigration in 1924 that employers turned, in desperation, to Black workers. As Du Bois explained, “The stopping of the importing of cheap white labor on any terms has been the economic salvation of American black labor.”

{snip} The real incomes of Black men grew fourfold from 1940 to 1980 — even faster than the 2 1/2-fold increase for white men — and the share of Black men in the middle class soared from 22% to 71%.

But then, in the mid-1960s, Congress — which had just passed landmark civil rights legislation — changed the immigration system, removing the quotas that had limited the influx of foreign workers for four decades.


That massive influx harmed the most vulnerable Americans — especially Black people. In fact, one Harvard economist found that from 1980 to 2000, immigration “reduced the wage of black high school dropouts by 8.3%, reduced the employment rate by 7.4 percentage points and increased the incarceration rate by 1.7 percentage points.”