Interview with Eleanor Holmes Norton

No, it was good. Now, you gave me a wonderful panorama on the phone about how generational economic changes wrought, and you compared the experiences of White ethnic immigrant groups coming off the boat and, and, um, with that of Blacks, and, um, so, I'd like to ask you a question that will get into that. Are we ready?




Why and how are White ethnic immigrants able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, while Blacks needed affirmative action?


Almost anybody who didn't have a stigma to him or her could pull themselves out, up, if they came in the late 19th or early 20th century because the wonderful American economic machine drank up all the labor it could find. Reached out to the far reaches of Europe, and thus the Poles and the Jews and the Italians and the Germans and this great variety of Americans that have assimilated into our population now got off boats with no skills, with only their, their drive and their, their yearning for a new life. Ah, they experienced enormous deprivation, enormous discrimination, overt and terrible discrimination, the, the grandparents of the Jews and the Irish and the Italians will tell you about that. The difference is that a White skin quickly absorbed them into the workforce, they were needed desperately, and up they went generation by generation. Meanwhile, there was, in the South of the United States, an indigenous workforce, that spoke the language, knew the customs of the country, and had an extraordinary work e--work ethic, and those people, of course, were African-Americans, but they could find no work in the North or the South. Both labor unions and corporations are conspired to keep them out of jobs. Not until World War I interrupted the sunses--the supply of White labor from Europe was there any tendency to hire Blacks at all, even in Northern factories where there was no de jure segregation, ah, and then Blacks were hired only in the meanest jobs, for which there was no, there were no White takers. That artificial effort, that specifically and overtly excluded Blacks, when jobs were available, but when they went wanting, that effort, after the Civil War, until virtually the time of, of World War II, is responsible for the retardation of Blacks in the workforce compared with the wholesale success of White immigrants. We would not need affirmative action today if Blacks had been let into the factories the way the White immigrants were, and if, if, if they had been, the controversy that now surrounds this issue never would have taken place. We now are making up for, ah, what we did not do when jobs were readily available, and of course the great tragedy is that Blacks have gotten the right to work, where only Whites worked before, only as the economy has become stagnant and no longer drinks up labor as it did in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is a, a real American tragedy. The only way to make up for it now, of course, is by using what amount to artificial means, temporary remedies, affirmative action remedies, that bring Blacks in, even as the bring women in and Hispanics in, ah, ah, who have also been excluded, and then fall away after the entrance of these groups who were kept out, ah, del--and deliberately kept out.