TCS Daily

Race, Immigration and the Problem of Hard Labor

By Lee Harris - May 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Mexico's President Vincente Fox has apologized for saying that immigrants from his country who come to ours will do the kind of hard low-status backbreaking work that "not even blacks" will do -- what, for short, we will call hard labor. Fox has apologized not because he got his facts wrong -- Latino workers, as everyone knows, will take jobs that no one else in our country, black or white, will take. Rather, he has apologized because his remarks were alleged to have been racist.

The accusation of racism I find baffling, though I am ready to concede that President Fox could have phrased his comment with a bit more sensitivity. But was his comment, as it stands, truly racist? I don't think so, and I want to explain why I don't think so. But to do this, we need to go back to the original debate about whether blacks or Mexicans work harder -- a debate that took place shortly after the discovery of the New World by the Europeans, and a debate in which, in accordance with the terms of the day, the blacks were called Africans and the Mexicans were called Indians. (Today most Mexican immigrants are the descendants of the native population, with little admixture of Spanish blood.)

When the New World was first discovered by the Spanish explorers, it was mainly a world in the tropics -- a world whose climate and environmental challenges made it virtually impossible for Europeans to do the hard and vexatious labor that was necessary if the New World was to produce something that looked even remotely like a civilization. So, naturally, the first Spanish colonizers turned to the native Indian population to find men who were willing to do the hard labor so critical to achieving colonial prosperity.

The Spanish Crown did not want the native population to be enslaved for this purpose, and tried to prevent their abuse. But the Spanish colonists/conquistadors had other ideas about the matter -- ideas that the Spanish monarchs, living across the Atlantic Ocean, could do little to keep them from implementing. Consequently, the Spanish colonists swiftly began to round up the native Indians, with the intention of forcing them to do the hard labor that someone or other would have to do if their adventures in the New World were to show a profit.

Immediately, however, the would-be slave-drivers of Indians discovered that there was a fatal flaw in their grand plan of exploiting the indigenous population of the New World. They could not be forced to do hard labor by whip or by musket. Accustomed to the relatively easy life of the tropics, and a social system in which no one was in a position to exploit anyone else's labor, the decision to exploit the native population was a miserable, though unspeakably brutal, failure. The Indians, when confined by their conquerors, simply gave up and died off -- many taken by the diseases inadvertently introduced by the Europeans, others from sheer despair.

The chronicler of this lamentable episode in human history was a man called Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar who lived from 1474 to 1566, and whose sympathies were wholly and completely with the native Indians. In his famous History of the Indies, las Casas not only revealed the Europeans' cruel treatment of the Indians, but he even took their side whenever they fought back against the inhumanity of las Casas' own countrymen.

Many societies have produced warriors who conquered and exploited backward tribes, but very few have produced men like las Casas whose conscience compelled them to condemn the conquerors of his own race and to defend the conquered of another -- no surprise, then, that las Casas, despite his occasional extravagance, is correctly viewed as one of the first and noblest of modern humanitarians.

Unfortunately, humanitarians are too often prone to focus on a favored segment of humanity, with whom they have a special sympathy, to the neglect of a less favored segment, with whom they lack this sympathy. And so it was with las Casas. Driven by his sincere desire to alleviate the sufferings of his beloved native Indians, las Casas urged that the Spanish forgo any further attempts at getting hard labor out of the native Americans, and instead to turn to what appeared to be an inexhaustible supply of exploitable brawn. Leave his precious Indians alone, las Casas argued, and replace them with African slaves.

Later, las Casas would bitterly repent his advice, though by then the abomination known as the African slave trade had become the obvious solution to the problem of procuring hard labor to work in the blistering heat of the tropics and semi-tropics.

It was the obvious solution for one simple reason. The African slaves who were imported into the New World didn't die off, but instead they actually managed to do the hard labor that no one else seemed able to do, neither the native Indians of America nor the Europeans who had hoped to exploit them.

Is the ability to do hard labor under adverse circumstances proof of racial inferiority? Or how about the capacity of a people to withstand the horrors of slavery without dying off in droves?

If there is any truth to the notion that the fittest survive, then the survival of black Africans under conditions that would have killed off any other people would seem to argue that they came not from an inferior race, but from a superior one. Indeed, if blacks could survive under conditions that killed off the Indians, and this despite the fact that the blacks had been wrenched from their own homeland, whereas the Indians had not been, isn't this a strong presumption in black racial superiority?

In fact, there is another explanation, and one that does not appeal to racism.

The great nineteenth century missionary Livingston, who knew the Africa of his time better than any other European, claimed that 90% of the Africans who were sold into slavery by their fellow Africans perished long before they ever laid their eyes on the transport ship that carried them across the Atlantic, not to mention the enormous number of slaves who perished in the voyage, and those who, once on this side of the Atlantic, perished from the failure to adjust to the new environment. In which case, how could the remnant who actually survived these ordeals not be stronger and more robust than those who succumbed to them?

The ancestors of those blacks currently living in both North and South America were the offspring of this enormously sturdy stock -- the original survivors, you might say. Hence it was no wonder that they were able to succeed where the Indians failed, and no wonder that, even after the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery, African blacks continued to do the hard labor tasks that others would not touch. For example, at the end of the Civil War, plantation owners in the former Confederacy tried to get Europeans to work in the cotton fields; but, at best, the Germans or the Swedes hired for such jobs simply lacked the stamina to perform them, and would walk off after only a few days -- the heat, the backbreaking work, they were all too much for them. Indeed, the African blacks could and would do work that even the much despised Irish refused to touch.

This is the point where we can connect back to President Fox's comment, which, I hope, we can now see in a different light.

In every social order, there are hard labor jobs that involve getting sweaty and dirty, and which require great physical strength and stamina, patience and often a bit of good humor. These hard labor jobs, furthermore, are often those that contribute the most to benefit the society in which they are performed. Who builds the offices in which lawyers can bilk their clients? Who constructs the roads upon which tax accountants can ride in their BMWs? Who puts up the million dollar homes in which basketball stars live?

But, strangely enough, despite the immense contribution that physical laborers make to the society that they build, maintain, and repair, such laborers have now, and they have always had, a lower status in the sociological hierarchy than people whose work involves no hard labor at all. Indeed, as a people move up this hierarchy, there is what might be called a flight from hard labor, until the point is reached where a person automatically prefers even a low-paying white collar job to a higher paying blue collar one.

When this point is reached, the society is in trouble if it cannot find a new class of people who are willing to do the hard labor so necessary to the upkeep of any civilization. In America, thanks both to slavery and to the system of black peonage that existed in much of the country throughout the twentieth century, the group upon whom most of the hard labor fell were black Americans and, of course, redneck white Americans -- in short, those who were poor and of lower status.

President Fox's observation that Mexicans will do jobs that "even blacks" are no longer willing to do is a simple recognition that the traditional American solution of the hard labor problem is long gone. Nor is it a matter of blacks refusing to do the hard labor. Go to Rabun County in north-eastern quadrant of Georgia, in which there are virtually no blacks, and there, too, you will find Latinos who are doing the hard labor jobs that were once done by the poorer class of whites.

Who is to blame for this situation? If black men can find high paying jobs that do not require hard labor, are they to be blamed for taking them, and leaving the hard labor to others? Is this because blacks have suddenly become adverse to hard labor, or is it because they are moving up the social hierarchy, and have come to look down on the hard labor that their grandfathers were accustomed to -- as all other people in the history of mankind have done when given the opportunity?

Whatever the explanation, it is an undeniable fact that there are jobs now in America that only Latinos will touch. These jobs are, in point of fact, jobs that someone or other must be willing to do, or else they will not get done at all. Finally, these jobs are, for the most part, among the most important jobs that a human being can do, when looked at from a strictly utilitarian point of view, and not when looked at with an eye to status.

The grand historical irony of President Fox's remark is that, by and large, the Mexican work force that plays such a critical role in keeping our country going are the descendants of the native Indian population that could not be induced, even at musket point, to do the hard labor demanded by their Spanish conquerors five hundred years ago.

Is there a message here?

Yes, and it is this. Successful societies produce people who begin to despise hard labor as beneath their dignity. Yet since this kind of work has to be done in any society, such societies must figure out where to tap into a supply of laborers of an inferior social status, who were still willing to do such work. In all societies up until quite recently, these laborers either came from an established class of peons, whose lower status was rigidly enforced by law or custom, as in Russian serfdom or else they were imported from other lands, and were called either indentured servants or slaves.

Today we are drawing these people from across our borders. They come here quite freely, and not on slave transports. All of us reap the advantages of their cheap labor and their hard work, but many of us want to pretend that, somehow, they are not necessary to us and that we can get along without them. Our educated class has deluded itself into thinking that the problem of hard labor no longer exists, simply because they and their children don't have to do it anymore. But someone does, and always will. What President Fox was trying to tell us, in his awkward way, was that those who argue that we can get along without illegal immigrants are living in a fantasy world, and that the sooner they wake up, the sooner Americans can begin working out a realistic solution to a problem that faces both our nations.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.


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