Labor In The U.S. Is Built On Racism

Labor and work in the U.S. stems from a legacy of slavery and exploitation.

Throughout history, the U.S. government has exploited workers in service of the economy. Slave labor, initiated through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, powered the cotton industry that gave rise to American capitalism (Baptist, 2014). Following the abolishment of slavery, Black Americans gained citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship and legal rights to Black Americans, but this did little to create opportunities for Black workers who stayed in agricultural labor in the southern states or moved largely into low-wage work in urban centers (Green, 1983). Black workers were systematically excluded from opportunities, which continues today along social, economic, and political axes (Green Coleman, 2016).

The historical need for cheap labor fueled the demand for foreign labor, so the U.S. government made immigration a central function of the U.S. labor market (Gomberg-Munoz & Nussbaum-Barberena, 2011). The U.S. government orchestrated the flow of labor by enacting immigration policies not only with the express purpose of controlling labor supply but, more importantly, to maintain a White racial hierarchy (Ngai, 2014). The government exploited the cheap labor of multiple Asian ethnic groups, and when those populations grew, enacted policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Immigration Act of 1917, and National Origins Act of 1924 to restrict Asian immigrants while providing preferences for White Europeans (Ngai, 2014). The decision to regulate immigration was a response to nativism, or policies to protect the interest of natives, which at the time meant White protestants. At its core, these actions represented racist attitudes about non-White immigrants, which were used to justify exclusion from entry into the country (Ngai, 2014).

Similarly, despite Mexican presence in the Southwest even before the construction of a U.S. border, the government widely exploited Mexican labor with the Bracero program, a temporary guestworker program that recruited Mexican laborers in 1942 during World War II by creating temporary work in agriculture, construction, and manufacturing (Tourse, 2018; Paret, 2014).  However, when Congress terminated the Bracero program in 1964, it suddenly restricted an established flow of migrants into the U.S. The enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 granted millions of Mexican agricultural workers in the Bracero program citizenship but also made knowingly hiring an unauthorized immigrant illegal, which created an underclass of workers. (Ngai, 2014; Paret, 2014; Massey & Pren, 2012). The criminalization and detention of undocumented workers have given rise to the contemporary exploitative and discriminatory labor conditions Latine immigrants face (Philbin et al, 2018; Siqueira et al, 2014; Ayón et al, 2012).

The history of U.S. labor is rooted in racism through exclusion and exploitation, which has seeded the racial health inequities low-wage workers experience today.

  • Ayón C, Gurrola M, Salas LM, Androff D, Krysik J. Intended and unintended consequences of the employer sanction law on Latino families. Qualitative Social Work. 2012;11(6):587-603.
  • Baptist EE. The Half Has Never Been Told : Slavery and the making of American capitalism. New York: Basic Books; 2014.
  • Green J. Workers’ Struggles, Past and Present: A “Radical America” Reader. Temple University Press; 1983.
  • Green Coleman L. Rendered Invisible: African American Low-Wage Workers and the Workplace Exploitation Paradigm. Howard Law Journal. 2016;60(1):61-104.
  • Gomberg-Munoz R, Nussbaum-Barberena L. Is Immigration Policy Labor Policy?: Immigration Enforcement, Undocumented Workers, and the State. Human Organization. 2011;70(4):366-375.
  • Massey DS, Pren KA. Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America. Population and Development Review. 2012;38(1):1-29.
  • Ngai MM. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press; 2014.
  • Paret M. Legality and exploitation: Immigration enforcement and the US migrant labor system. Lat Stud. 2014;12(4):503-526.
  • Philbin MM, Flake M, Hatzenbuehler ML, Hirsch JS. State-level immigration and immigrant-focused policies as drivers of Latino health disparities in the United States. Soc Sci Med. 2018;199:29-38.
  • Siqueira CE, Gaydos M, Monforton C, et al. Effects of social, economic, and labor policies on occupational health disparities. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. 2014;57(5):557-572. doi:10.1002/ajim.22186.
  • Tourse RWC, Hamilton-Mason J, Wewiorski NJ. Immigration Through the Lens of Systemic Racism. In: Tourse RWC, Hamilton-Mason J, Wewiorski NJ, eds. Systemic Racism in the United States: Scaffolding as Social Construction. Springer International Publishing; 2018:39-60. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-72233-7_4.