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How Racism and Xenophobia Divide the Working Class

In Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. du Bois writes about the relationship between institutional racism and the exploitation of labor. According to du Bois, even though White and African American workers have a shared interest in better wages and treatment, the historical lack of contact between the two groups has caused each group to view the other as a rival.

“The result of this,” du Bois writes, “was that the wages of both classes could be kept low, the whites fearing to be supplanted by Negro labor, the Negroes always being threatened by the substitution of white labor” (qtd. in Smith 2006).

We can analyze the role of systemic racism in the power dynamics between workers and managers using network exchange theory.

Suppose we have three groups, each represented as a node in the above graph. C is the management of a company, W is a group of White workers, and B is a group of non-White workers, such as African Americans or European immigrants (who were not considered “White” until the mid-20th century). W and B are competing for a split of $100 with C, which represents employment. There are two possible outcomes: either C could split with W, giving W a negligible amount of money while leaving B with nothing, or C could split with B, leaving W with nothing.

C has much more power than W and B due to the structure of this network. If W demands higher wages or better working conditions, then C will simply hire B as strikebreakers, putting W out of work. However, if W and B were also connected, then all three nodes would have comparable power.

This leads to two strategies for W to increase their payoff in subsequent rounds of the network exchange. Blaming B for displacing them, W could try to get B eliminated from the network. Or, observing that C was able to take advantage of their lack of contact with B to depress both W and B’s expected wages, W could try to form an alliance with B in order to gain bargaining power for both W and B.

As this model predicts, American labor unions in the early 20th century pursued a mix of both strategies: some unions pursued anti-immigrant policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act in order to reduce competition with presently organized workers, while other unions sought to bring immigrant workers into their fold so that the overall bargaining power of workers would increase. By the 1980s, however, most labor unions became pro-immigrant as they believed restrictions on immigration to be ineffective at reducing immigration.




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