Ethnic Contribution and Racism in US History               Coordinator


The books we learn from in school do not give the whole picture of the history and achievements of minorities in the US. Prejudice there was directed against Native Americans who stood in the way of European movement west. Racist sentiments justified the slave trade in Africans, a fine argument supporting the economic advantage slave owners enjoyed over those who hired labor.

The struggle for full citizenship and equal opportunity in the US has been ongoing from pre-Revolution days. Even before the Declaration of Independence, vocal abolitionist groups opposed the practice of slavery. The matter, however, was sidestepped by the framers of the Constitution who recognized the already intense differences between northern and southern (slave) states. They put it off for a better day, feeling it would tear the new republic apart before it even began.

When the issue was finally taken up in the national debate, it became a focal point of economic issues that led to the Civil War (1860-65). The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves and further weaken the Confederacy. The North won the war, the Union was preserved and slaves were free. But they were held in economic servitude and denied the right to vote in many states through elaborate Jim Crow laws and outright intimidation, most notably by the sheet-clad Ku Klux Klan.

The struggle ebbed and flowed over the next hundred years. The resurgent Civil Rights movement began in about 1955 and culminated in Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, a decade later and a full century after Emancipation. Much has changed since the ratification of the ERA, though African Americans still experience a higher incidence of poverty, unemployment and incarceration for comparable crimes than whites.

Immigrant waves to the US have also been subject to racism, especially Orientals in the western US, and Latinos wherever employed, most often in the food production, housekeeping and garment industries. Chinese laborers were imported to provide muscle for the massive expansion of railroads into the western US. Once their indentured service was completed, many stayed on, settling into Chinatowns in burgeoning west coast cities. Japanese immigrants also formed a significant group on the west coast, large enough to draw the suspicion of occidental Americans when Japan entered WWII. Their internment in camps and the seizure of their property remains one of the stains on America’s image as a refuge for those seeking to build a better life.

Likewise, people from south of the US-Mexico border, and more recently from politically troubled Central American countries, have had a varied experience in the US. At one time, nearly a third of the southern US was under the control either of a Spanish king or Mexican rulers. Expansionism in the 19th century saw these lands brought under US control. The Rio Grande border was fairly porous, and people moved in both directions across it.

In the 20th century, however, economic disparity drew more poor Latinos into the US. Many came in labor gangs imported to work in the produce fields, not just in the Southwest, but even as far north as the Great Lakes states. Many ‘settled out’ and got US citizenship, though seasonal migration continued to disrupt education for their children. Back-breaking labor and substandard wages, often paid illegally under the table, led to the rise of La Raza Unida and the United Farm Workers movement in the San Joaquin valley of California. It spread across the country.

On the other coast, immigrants from Puerto Rico moved up through the eastern seaboard, often landing in the garment mills of New York and other cities. Again, poor wages and prejudice concentrated them into ghetto neighborhoods.

The presidential campaign of Barack Obama (2008) brought the issue of racism back into the political discourse, where he addressed it eloquently. His historic election was a sign that the nation had moved beyond its racist past and that the door of opportunity for African Americans and other marginalized ethnic groups had opened even wider.

Racism, however, has not ended in the US, despite the strides made.

Read more:

US Emancipation Proclamation (1863)

Civil Rights Movement worldwide, 20th century

Obama’s speech on racism, Philadelphia, PA, March 2008  

Jim Crow Laws, Wikipedia

Where is Reverend Wright When You Need Him, TruthDig April, 2009, US refusal to go to ‘Durbin II’

Missing Black Women Still Get Less Media Attention Than Whites, Seattle, April 2009
House Passes Hate Crime Bill, Reuters, April 2009

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