The "Worker Shortage" Myth Depresses Black Wealth

Roy Beck | 2/12/2024, 3:16 p.m.
America's business elites have used immigration as a tool to avoid hiring Black Americans for the past two centuries. This ...
Roy Beck

America's business elites have used immigration as a tool to avoid hiring Black Americans for the past two centuries. This pattern of discrimination has depressed African Americans' employment and wages -- and is a significant cause of persistent racial wealth gaps.

The trend began before the Civil War. By the early 1800s, many Northern states had banned slavery and were home to substantial numbers of free Black workers. But starting in the 1820s, northern employers increasingly sought cheaper white immigrant workers from Europe -- which stalled Black economic momentum.

After the Civil War, former slaves began migrating to northern states to staff the factories of a rapidly industrializing nation. This led to huge jumps in African American skills, incomes, and even business ownership.

Southern plantations and businesses despaired of their dwindling source of cheap labor. But by the 1880s, they were rescued by the grand political and economic bargaining that resulted in the Ellis Island-era "Great Wave of Immigration." Each year over the next four decades, an average of nearly 600,000 immigrants flowed primarily into northern labor markets.

That largely blocked the flow of Black workers from the South. In fact, many former slaves and their families moved back to the lower-wage South after they were displaced by desperate immigrants willing to accept low wages and appalling working conditions. By 1910, about 90% of all African Americans were still laboring as farm workers and household servants in the South.

Finally, in 1924, public pressure -- including from notable Black leaders of the day like A. Philip Randolph and W. E. B. Du Bois -- forced Congress to drastically reduce annual immigration.

The ensuing tightness in northern labor markets created demand for underemployed, underpaid southern workers. Some six million African Americans left the South during the Great Migration made possible by tighter labor markets. By the 1960s, the share of Black households that were considered middle class had expanded from two in 10 to seven in 10.

But the economic boom didn't last. Congress reopened mass migration in the 1960s, and -- just as before -- economic progress ceased for most Black Americans.

In response, federal commissions in the 1970s called on Congress to reduce immigration, but lawmakers instead heeded the concerns of employer lobbies that expressed fears of "worker shortages." Instead of viewing tight job markets as an opportunity to bring more Black Americans into the workforce and close racial wealth gaps, Congress chose to enable businesses to fill jobs with foreign workers.

In the decades since, the U.S. government has offered lifetime work authorization to more than 30 million immigrants, not counting millions of foreign workers who have entered the country illegally.

The United States doesn't have a worker shortage. Approximately four in 10 working-age African Americans with only high school diplomas don't have jobs. Many would jump at the chance to work, if recruited at fair wages and working conditions.

For two centuries, the labor shortage myth has been used to justify immigration policies that disadvantage Black Americans. Today, the median household wealth of descendants of American slavery remains much less than that of recent immigrants -- and less than 15% that of the descendants of European immigrants and settlers.

Given our history, claims of a "worker shortage" should put any racially sensitive American on high alert.

Roy Beck is the sole founder and former president of the NumbersUSA Education and Research Foundation, and the author of Back of the Hiring Line: A 200-Year History of Immigration Surges, Employer Bias, and Depression of Black Wealth. This column originally appeared in the Washington Informer.