Due to my study of immigration policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, I inevitably end up dealing with freedom of movement issues more generally. On Monday, the Freeman published a short essay I wrote on how Jim Crow restrictions on the movement of blacks (although I use the more PC term “African American” in my piece, “black” is actually a more accurate description because the racist policy had everything to do with skin color, not national origin). Although I was careful to note that comparisons between immigration and segregation might be slightly overdone, however, I believe the comparison is important to make the point that while people think of these policies as social controls, they were just as much about economic regulations. As I wrote:
Since laws that intend to control personal behavior are so rarely enforceable, governments conscript business people to act as de facto State agents. In this way social controls quickly morph into economic regulations.
Because the social effects of immigration policies–border militarization, indefinite detention, deportation, destruction of families, etc.–are so dire, people rightly focus on these aspects. But just like under segregation, government has found business and communities more generally resistant to voluntarily expend the necessary resources to enforce their social agenda, which has led to conscription of businessmen. As I point out in my piece, “it is often forgotten that the railroad in the infamous Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) actually helped fight the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine because it ‘saddled employers with the burden of becoming the state’s race policemen.’”
Jim Crow began humbly—with segregated streetcars in Georgia in 1891—but quickly escalated, imposing on southern businesses ever more burdensome requirements: twice the number of bathrooms, waiting rooms, ticket counters, phone booths, even cocktail lounges. The president of Southeastern Greyhound told the Wall Street Journal in 1957, “It frequently costs fifty percent more to build a terminal with segregated facilities.”
The case for those on the right that defend the distinction between Jim Crow and segregation is complicated by the fact that immigration laws had the same racist origins as segregation. Simply because they are no longer defended on these grounds doesn’t change that fact. On the other hand, those on the left defend the distinction out of the desire to show the necessity of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Despite the evidence I present to the contrary, they claim businesses would have continued racially biased policies unless federal action was taken.
But the absurdity of the regulatory state under segregation simply cannot be emphasized enough. “By 1915,” Isabel Wilkerson notes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns, “black and white textile workers in South Carolina could not use the same ‘water bucket, pails, cups, dippers, or glasses,’ work in the same room, or even go up or down a stairway at the same time.” Just imagine how difficult it would have been to comply with such laws and hire black employees (who were cheaper and thus more valuable to businessmen). As difficult as it is to believe for some, businesses did not favor such a system.
While there is no question that many individual businessmen were supportive of the system, they were for the most part only supportive of it (as Bob Murphy has noted) because they didn’t want to face competition from businesses that didn’t discriminate–they wanted to be “free to discriminate,” but avoid the accountability of the market that comes with that freedom. And again, the period prior to the introduction of Jim Crow definitely did see discrimination, but it was of a much lower order than during the period after state sanctioned discrimination. As Wilkerson writes:
These statutes only served to worsen race relations alienating one group from the other and removing the few informal interactions that might have helped both sides see the potential good and humanity in the other…. Young whites, weaned on a formal kind of supremacy, had grown more hostile to blacks than even their slaveholding ancestors had been.
She quotes former-Alabama Gov. William C. Oates saying in 1901, “The sentiment is altogether different now. When the Negro is doing no harm, why the people want to kill and wipe him from the face of the earth.” The social controls had an effect, and it was to create a subclass without rights and higher “entitled class”–it’s almost impossible not to see the parallels to today’s “illegal” and “legal” classes, one of which thinks that they ought to be entitled to do almost anything to the other to “enforce the law” and “protect their jobs.”
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