For a century after the Civil War, Southern state governments devoted vast resources to creating the elaborate system of legal segregation commonly known as Jim Crow. Its purpose was to keep Black people subordinate to white people in every sphere of life. Its creators were zealous racists, but mere prejudice wasn’t their primary motivation. One telling episode makes this clear: when hundreds of thousands of Black workers started migrating north, white Southerners actually launched huge protests begging them to stay. In reality, Jim Crow’s true purpose was economic. Its basic goal was the same as slavery’s: to make the greatest possible profit off of exploiting Black labor. If segregation laws could successfully prevent Black people from getting an education, claiming their civil rights, and working in anything but sharecropping and manual labor, then the Southern elite would have a constant supply of cheap, compliant workers for its factories and plantations.
Many Black Southerners eventually recognized this pattern and left the South in search of better economic opportunities elsewhere. Yet this by no means implies that they achieved economic equality in their destination cities. On the contrary, wherever they went, Black migrants were also stuck working the longest hours, in the worst jobs, for the lowest pay. In other words, they migrated north only to find that, once they arrived, they were treated as a pool of cheap labor once again, particularly for wartime factories, domestic work, and suppressing wages and putting down strikes by white workers. Meanwhile, landlords and real estate agents profited from racism in a different way: they charged Black tenants and buyers far higher prices. Even though Northern cities weren’t segregated by law, they were still sharply divided by informal color lines—which meant that Black people were confined to a few overcrowded neighborhoods and had to pay far more than whites for a decent home. (When they tried to live elsewhere, white neighbors often bombed or burned down their houses.) Thus, although migrants in the North and West generally fared better than their non-migrant counterparts back home in the South, in their destination cities, they still faced a similar kind of racism—which, to this day, continues largely because it’s profitable for the people who discriminate against Black people. Based on this similarity, Wilkerson concludes that economic forces provide the best explanation for the pervasiveness of racism in the U.S.
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The Economics of Racism Quotes in The Warmth of Other Suns
Not unlike European Jews who watched the world close in on them slowly, perhaps barely perceptibly, at the start of Nazism, colored people in the South would first react in denial and disbelief to the rising hysteria, then, helpless to stop it, attempt a belated resistance, not knowing and not able to imagine how far the supremacists would go. The outcomes for both groups were widely divergent, one suffering unspeakable loss and genocide, the other enduring nearly a century of apartheid, pogroms, and mob executions. But the hatreds and fears that fed both assaults were not dissimilar and relied on arousing the passions of the indifferent to mount so complete an attack.
Above her was an entire economy she could not see but which ruled her days and determined the contours of her life. There were bankers, planters, merchants, warehouse clerks, fertilizer wholesalers, seed sellers, plow makers, mule dealers, gin owners. A good crop and a high price made not much improvement to the material discomforts of Ida Mae’s existence but meant a planter’s wife could “begin to dream of a new parlor carpet and a piano.” […] On Wall Street, there were futures and commodities traders wagering on what the cotton she had yet to pick might go for next October. There were businessmen in Chicago needing oxford shirts, socialites in New York and Philadelphia wanting lace curtains and organdy evening gowns. Closer to home, closer than one dared to contemplate, there were Klansmen needing their white cotton robes and hoods.
Thousands of colored soldiers had preceded him overseas during the two great wars—more than a million in World War II alone—and that service had been a defining experience for many of them. They were forced into segregated units and often given the most menial tasks or the most dangerous infantry tours. But they also experienced relief from Jim Crow in those European villages, were recognized as liberating Americans rather than lower-caste colored men, and felt pride in what their uniform represented.
They returned home to a Jim Crow South that expected them to go back to the servile position they left. Most resented it and wanted to be honored for risking their lives for their country rather than attacked for being uppity. Some survived the war only to lose their lives to Jim Crow.
George could have left after settlement without saying a word. It was a risk to say too much. The planter could rescind the settlement, say he misfigured, turn a credit into a debit, take back the money, evict the family or whip the sharecropper on the spot, or worse. Some sharecroppers, knowing they might not get paid anyway, fled from the field, right in midhoe, on the first thing going north.
The planters could not conceive of why their sharecroppers would want to leave. The dance of the compliant sharecropper conceding to the big planter year in and year out made it seem as if the ritual actually made sense, that the sharecropper, having been given no choice, actually saw the tilted scales as fair. The sharecropper’s forced silence was part of the collusion that fed the mythology.
“I came all this way running from Jim Crow, and it slaps me straight in the face,” Robert said. “And just think, I told my friends, why did they stay in the South and take the crumbs? ‘Come to California.’”
The posted concessions, addressed to white neighbors with a sense of defeat and resignation, offered a glimpse into the differences between the North and South. The South, totalitarian and unyielding, was at that very moment succeeding at what white Harlem leaders were so desperately trying to do, that is, controlling the movements of blacks by controlling the minds of whites.
There appeared to be an overarching phenomenon that sociologists call a “migrant advantage.” It is some internal resolve that perhaps exists in any immigrant compelled to leave one place for another. It made them “especially goal oriented, leading them to persist in their work and not be easily discouraged,” Long and Heltman of the Census Bureau wrote in a 1975 report. In San Francisco, for instance, the migrants doubled up like their Chinese counterparts and, as in other cities, tended to “immigrate as groups and to remain together in the new environment for purposes of mutual aid,” wrote the sociologist Charles S. Johnson.
The story played out in virtually every northern city—migrants sealed off in overcrowded colonies that would become the foundation for ghettos that would persist into the next century. These were the original colored quarters—the abandoned and identifiable no-man’s-lands that came into being when the least-paid people were forced to pay the highest rents for the most dilapidated housing owned by absentee landlords trying to wring the most money out of a place nobody cared about.
Contrary to modern-day assumptions, for much of the history of the United States—from the Draft Riots of the 1860s to the violence over desegregation a century later—riots were often carried out by disaffected whites against groups perceived as threats to their survival. Thus riots would become to the North what lynchings were to the South, each a display of uncontained rage by put-upon people directed toward the scapegoats of their condition. Nearly every big northern city experienced one or more during the twentieth century.
Each outbreak pitted two groups that had more in common with each other than either of them realized.
Overall, however, what was becoming clear was that, north or south, wherever colored labor was introduced, a rivalrous sense of unease and insecurity washed over the working-class people who were already there, an unease that was economically not without merit but rose to near hysteria when race and xenophobia were added to preexisting fears. The reality was that Jim Crow filtered through the economy, north and south, and pressed down on poor and working-class people of all races. The southern caste system that held down the wages of colored people also undercut the earning power of the whites around them, who could not command higher pay as long as colored people were forced to accept subsistence wages.
Yet the very thing that made black life hard in the North, the very nature of northern hostility—unwritten, mercurial, opaque, and eminently deniable—made it hard for King to nail down an obvious right-versus-wrong cause to protest.
The discontent of the young people unsettled the migrant parents who had fled the violence of the South. They could do little to dissuade their children from whatever role they might play in the outburst. It was too late to try to get them jobs at now-closed factories or the education they missed if they gave up on school, or, maybe most of all, the grounding and strength they themselves had acquired after having endured so much. The parents had come from the Old Country, had been happy to have made it out alive and make a few dollars an hour. What did they know of the frustration of the young people who had grown up in the mirage of equality but a whole different reality, in a densely packed world of drugs and gangs and disorder, with promises that seemed to have turned to dust?
The hierarchy in the North “called for blacks to remain in their station,” Lieberson wrote, while immigrants were rewarded for “their ability to leave their old world traits” and become American as quickly as possible. Society urged them to leave Poland and Latvia behind and enter the mainstream white world. Not so with their black counterparts like Ida Mae, Robert, and George.
“Although many blacks sought initially to reach an assimilated position in the same way as did the new European immigrants,” Lieberson noted, “the former’s efforts were apt to be interpreted as getting out of their place or were likely to be viewed with mockery.” Ambitious black migrants found that they were not able to get ahead just by following the course taken by immigrants and had to find other routes to survival and hoped-for success.