Martin Luther King Jr.'s crusade for economic justice was not limited to poor Black Americans. His work, like the work of NumbersUSA today, was aimed at helping all vulnerable Americans of any race or national origin.
But King recognized that historic circumstances had left a large, disproportionate share of Black Americans in an economic underclass.
I believe that Americans whose ancestors were slaves have been the greatest victims of the renewal of mass immigration that has occurred since King's assassination in 1968.
My reading of experts on the history of both Black Americans and of immigration finds something entirely predictable about mass immigration (defined by numbers far above historical average and without any connection to the needs of the nation). That is, mass immigration when it has occurred in the United States -- and regardless of what nationalities comprised the flow -- has always been accompanied by stagnation or regression in the economic progress of Black Americans.
W.W. Norton & Company of New York City published the following by me in 1996. I do not think much would need to be changed for it to be totally accurate for this Martin Luther King Day of 2011. NumbersUSA was founded in 1996 and has worked during this entire 15-year period to improve the economic possibilities for the Black underclass by tightening the labor market through lower immigration and by encouraging employers to improve their recruiting and training among all poor Americans who are outside of the labor force.
THE 'FAILED BLACK THIRD'
The plight of Black Americans faced with the current flood of foreign workers has moved in the same direction it always has gone during high immigration: down.
After decades of steady improvement, the economic and social conditions for many Black citizens have significantly deteriorated since the 1970s.
- The poverty rate of Black Americans is triple the rate of all other Americans.
- One of every three Black citizens now lives in poverty.
To distinguish them from the majority of black Americans who have managed to hold on to middleclass status, we might call those in poverty the "failed Black third."
To the National Academy of Sciences, the "failed Black third" is a challenge to the conscience of the nation. "Americans face an unfinished agenda," it stated in 1989 after an expansive study. "Many Black Americans remain separated from the mainstream of national life under conditions of great inequality. The American dilemma has not been resolved."
To Leroy Clark, a lawyer with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, crusade throughout the 1960s, Americans should deal with the "failed Black third" for very practical reasons. All of us live more precarious lives because of that concentration of poverty, he says. "From the army of hungry, unemployed Black teenagers, come the muggers, drug addicts and gang members who make our cities dangerous."
White Americans realize how bad life is for poor Black Americans, according to a report in American Sociological Review. But most whites believe that Blacks who fail do so because they don't work hard and are unable to delay gratification. The conservative Black economist Walter Williams of George Mason University lays the blame largely on bad behavior: "If people would wait until they're married to have children and work when they have children, there would
not be a poverty problem."
THE ROLE OF MASS IMMIGRATION IN AN INTRACTIBLE BLACK UNDERCLASS
Even if Williams is substantially correct, that raises a number of questions about the role of government policies that contribute to bad choices, behavior, and attitudes.
What if federal policies make it difficult to find jobs-especially ones that pay a family wage and make conventional family life seem possible? What if the federal immigration program has sapped economic hope and created social turmoil by bringing millions of foreign citizens to compete with the "failed Black third" in their schools, in their workplaces, and in their neighborhoods?
Perhaps the "failed Black third" is really the "sabotaged Black third."
While the government was purporting to help that segment of the population with myriad social programs, its immigration policies were undermining the benefits. That isn't to say that immigration created the social and economic pathologies of the Black underclass. But it may have played a crucial role in stopping black progress in the 1970s and in slowly reversing the progress ever since.
It is easy to believe that is the case because it has happened before several times.
To review the Black side of our nation's immigration tradition is to observe African Americans periodically trying to climb the mainstream economic ladder, only to be shoved aside each time. It is to see one immigrant wave after another climb onto and up that ladder while planting their feet on the backs of Black Americans.
Before the Civil War, slaves who gained their freedom and moved north suffered constant setbacks as immigrants pushed them aside.
IMMIGRATION KEPT BLACK AMERICANS FROM EXPERIENCE & PROFITS OF INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
After the Civil War ended, black Americans had barely begun to find niches in industries and trades when the Great Wave of immigration drove them backward. Thus, few Black people were able to move into the middle class until after mass immigration ended in 1924.
During the tight-labor, low-immigration era of 1940 to 1970, the middle class grew from 22 percent of Black Americans to 71 percent!
By 1970, though, mass immigration once again was on the upswing.
Unfortunately, the march toward equality with whites stalled after that, and the Black middle class has been shrinking since.
ROY BECK is Founder & CEO of NumbersUSA