Imagine you’re in a land of science fiction.  In this land an evil eugenicist designs a shot that kills 40% of the African Americans who receive it, then mixes it with another invention of his: a vaccine against the common cold.  The cure for the common cold sounds desirable so the mixed shot/poison stays en vogue.  Eventually government makes it mandatory.  Eighty years later the evil eugenicist has long since died, and the people who support use of the mixed shot/poison are found saying: “I don’t want to hurt 40% of African Americans, I’m no racist, I just don’t want people to have to endure the cold virus!”

Substitute the words mixed shot/poison with “minimum wage” and you have America in 2014.   Minimum wage laws have long been a favorite tool of racists.  A law that intends to do something racist…. like the evil eugenicist in our story…. is said to have a “racist intent.”  A law that does something racist accidentally, like advocates of that shot who lived 80 years after the mad scientist, are said to have a “racist effect.”

SOUTH AFRICA

In South Africa socialist miner’s unions demanded minimum wage in order to make cheap black labor the same price as white labor, thus ensuring that whites would always get a job before blacks.

In South Africa’s case it started with the Rand Rebellion, which was organized by the Communist Party of South Africa.  That rebellion was started by white miners in response to mine owners attempting to replace white workers with cheaper black labor.  South Africa’s Wage Board said at the time that, “The method would be to fix a minimum rate for an occupation or craft so high that no Native would likely be employed.”

And so the minimum wage in South Africa was the first tool in Apartheid.  It was also the keystone in the racist programs because it prevented native (black) African workers from moving into more advanced positions in the mining industry as they acquired the skills.

AMERICA

In 1932 a group of American congressmen drafted the Fair Labor Standards Act as the counterpart law to the Davis-Bacon Act.  The minimum wage law was defeated, and would return toward the end of the decade.  The Davis-Bacon Act, however, passed and remains in force today.  It was the precursor for the national minimum wage law, but only applied to wages paid for contractors working on federal projects.  This law was proposed in response to black workers coming in to build a government hospital, and replacing white labor in Representative Bacon’s district.

Here are some quotes from the Congressional Record, taken straight from the floor of Congress, as the Davis-Bacon Act was discussed:

  • Rep. John Cochran (Democrat, Missouri) : “I have received numerous complaints in recent months about southern contractors employing low-paid colored mechanics getting work and bringing the employees from the South.”
  • Rep. John McCormack (Democrat, Mass.): “We shouldn’t allow these people to be lured from distant places to work on this new hospital.”
  • Sen. Jacob Javits (Democrat, NY): “The northern-state industrial white worker often has to unfairly compete with the cheaper colored worker from the south.”
  • Rep. William Upshaw (Democrat, Georgia): “that real problem you are confronted with in any community with a superabundance or large aggregation of negro labor.”
  • Rep. Clayton Allgood (Democrat, Alabama): “that contractor has cheap colored labor that he transports, and he puts them in cabins, and it is labor of that sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country.”
  • Rep. Robert Condon (Democrat, Cali): “We have to stop this cheap labor.”
  • AFL’s President Bill Greene: “Colored labor is being sought to demoralize wage rates and thus a wage mandate is necessary to prevent such competition.”

Now, beyond the racist intent of the Davis-Bacon Act, the FLSA that followed it also intentionally omitted agricultural labor and people providing in-home services (say a nurse caring for the elderly).  Why?  Because those jobs accounted for almost all of the employment of the black population in the 1930s in America.  So the law was written so that almost all the African Americans at the time didn’t qualify for the benefit of it.  Those who did qualify by working in a factory, or some other setting, then immediately began to become unemployed because employers were now free to discriminate with no penalty.

minimum wage cartoon