The long history of oppression of nonwhites goes back to America’s founding, beginning with the systematic destruction of Native Americans and the importation of Africans for slave labor. Although African American men practiced a variety of crafts and trades during the early decades of the republic, by the time of the Civil War, slavery had become deeply entrenched in the American South, and most were restricted to agricultural labor. Following the Civil War and Emancipation, the Reconstruction did not deliver on most of its promises to freed slaves. The sharecropping system and the black codes kept most southern blacks working in slavery-like conditions. The men were rarely able to get more than agricultural work and the women, domestic work. Also during the late nineteenth century, the American West was built in large part with the labor of immigrants from China, Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines, who were paid low wages for back-breaking work. These immigrants were largely reviled by the AFL unions, which viewed them as a threat to white workers.
In the opening decades of the twentieth century black migration took many African Americans to northern cities to seek better work and better lives. In the North, these migrants found discrimination and strenuous, lowpaying jobs, for which they competed with a rising number of immigrants from various countries who also suffered discrimination and exploitation. Although during the early twentieth century a number of black business owners and professionals emerged, most African Americans remained part of the economic underclass, as did other peoples of color. Even so, for African Americans the industrial opportunities in the North were a marked improvement over conditions in the South, where industry lagged and the destruction of crops caused by the boll weevil sharply reduced the amount of agricultural work.
When the Great Depression hit, American minorities suffered disproportionately. Those who had previously been the “last hired” were now the “first fired,” as whites often took over what had been “black” jobs. Drought and economic hardship, for example, pushed white farm workers off midwestern farms to compete with nonwhite migrant farm workers in the fields of California. After 1932 most black voters switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party because of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the New Deal had a mixed record for minorities, who still suffered discrimination in obtaining federal jobs and unemployment benefits. World War II revived the economy to a degree the New Deal had not. However, the FEPC failed to eradicate racial discrimination in wartime industry. Its main problems were spotty enforcement and a failure to address the kinds of workplace discrimination that went beyond the hiring process, such as workplace segregation. At the same time, desegregation of the United States Armed Forces, the other reason Randolph threatened to march on Washington, was only accomplished after World War II.
Although the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is primarily remembered for gaining voting rights for African Americans and ending legal segregation in the South, its role in ending workplace discrimination with the passage of Title VII should not be underestimated. Although the mainstream civil rights movement ultimately failed to tackle the economic aspects of discrimination, the failure was not for lack of interest among its leaders. Prior to his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. had announced the formation of a “Poor Peoples’ Campaign” to address economic injustices against people of all races. In fact, on the night of his assassination, he was making a public appearance in support of striking garbage workers.
Into the Twenty-First Century
Toward the end of the twentieth century, the rising tide of conservatism and complaints about political correctness threatened the gains made in eradicating discrimination. Affirmation action came increasingly under attack, both in the courts and in public opinion, with both its efficacy and its fairness questioned. Many opponents of affirmative action raised the possibility that it perpetuates the very discriminatory attitudes it was designed to eradicate, arguing that when any nonwhite employee is hired, particularly at a higher level, read more