Racism, labor and the welfare state

By Jamelle Bouie


Yesterday, Dylan Matthews — writing at Ezra Klein’s place in response to AEI’s Arthur Brooks — offered this interesting thought on why a powerful European-style labor movement never took root in the United States:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. never built up a labor movement, let alone a labor or socialist party, with the power of those in most European states because racial animus prevented the black and white lower classes from organizing together. It was hardly the only factor, but it was a critical one. To this day, race is the best predictor of support for welfare, and during last year’s debate, racial animus was correlated with opposition to health-care reform.

At the risk of sounding a little pedantic, I think Dylan’s explanation is a bit off. In the early stages of the American labor movement, interracial organizing wasn’t uncommon; in their early years, both the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor admitted African-Americans. It’s not so much that racial animus prevented the black and white lower classes from organizing together as it was that labor leaders made a conscious decision to exclude black workers in exchange for more and greater influence.

For example, in order to bolster the AFL’s political power, Samuel Gompers — it’s founder and head — expelled and actively discriminated against African-American workers while moving to accommodate their mostly-skilled white counterparts (the same force motivated the AFL’s support for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act). This also holds true for the Populist movement (and subsequent Populist Party), which began as an interracial coalition of farmers and unskilled workers, but eventually segregated as its leaders tried to win political power by building support among Southern whites. And this is to say nothing of the fact that major stakeholders in opposition to the labor movement used racial animus to sow division among labor leaders.

Dylan isn’t wrong, he’s just too passive in his description; both labor and business leaders used racial animus to protect their interests and build political power. Unfortunately for labor, it was something of a Devil’s bargain; cultivating racial animus worked to build short-term power, but in the long-term, actively excluding a huge portion of the labor population left the movement incredibly vulnerable to the power of business and the state.