The Forgotten Emancipator #4: Race and Labor

In an 1856 speech, future United States Representative James Ashley said, "I often wonder how your northern-born men can show such hostility to the black man.  Singularly enough, I find here in the north, as in the south, that the hatred of the negro is not that he is black or of mixed blood, but because he is a slave.  it is the hatred born of the spirit of caste, not of color."  In this speech, Ashley explains the relationship between racial discrimination and economic subordination.  Black workers were caught in a caste system that classified them according to race.  Racism was not only the ideological justification for chattel slavery, but it also enables the economic exploitation of free workers of color.

Racism also harms workers of all races because it splits the working class and interferes with the class solidarity necessary for an effective movement to improve the conditions of all workers.  Opponents of workers' rights well understand the power of racism as a tool of economic disempowerment.  In the antebellum era, apologists for slavery appealed to the racism of northern white workers who did not want to work alongside free blacks. In the Twentieth Century, as Sophia Lee describes in her excellent book, The Workplace Constitution: From the New Deal to the New Right, “right to work” advocates sought to exploit racial divisions in the labor movement to undermine mid-century gains by that movement.  In his presidential campaign last year, Donald Trump effectively used racist rhetoric to motivate white working-class voters to vote against their economic interests.

On the other hand, throughout our history advocates for racial and economic justice have been most effective when they worked together.  In the Nineteenth Century, antislavery activists joined with labor activists to advocate for the end of slavery and for workers’ rights.  In the Twentieth Century, African American labor leaders such as A. Philip Randolph spearheaded the northern civil rights movement.  Randolph and United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther worked together to organize the 1963 March on Washington, made famous by Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  UAW lobbyists played an essential role in the fight for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned race discrimination in employment and places of public accommodation.   This week, Doug Jones, the white son of a U.S. Steel worker who himself worked as a unionized steel worker, won the Alabama Senate seat due to the overwhelming turnout of black voters.    

As ACLU founder Roger Baldwin said in 1920, “The race issue is at bottom is the labor issue.”  Racism continues to plague our nation and will always be a central component of the American experience.   Meanwhile, workers of all races are suffering from a decline in real income and loss of work-related benefits such as health care and pensions.  Civil rights and labor activists are most effective when they address the inter-connection of racial and economic justice.  The Thirteenth Amendment, with its promise of both racial equality and workers’ rights, is a good foundation for an integrated theory of rights. 

I first posted this blog entry on on December 15, 2017.