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Black History Month: The Immigrant Debt to Black History

Algernon Austin

In Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, he very briefly makes an important argument about Americans’ responsibility to address the history of anti-black racial discrimination. Rothstein’s argument is addressed to immigrants who try to distance themselves from the history of racial oppression, but it really applies to all Americans in this country that people like to call a “nation of immigrants.”

Some Americans claim that since their ancestors arrived after the end of slavery or after the end of Jim Crow or that since they arrived last week, then addressing the history of anti-black racial discrimination in this country is not their concern. This line of reasoning fails to appreciate what history is and what American history means for America today.

For most post-1965 immigrants, there is a very clear debt to the African American Civil Rights Movement. Prior to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, U.S. immigration policy was designed with a strong preference for Northern Europeans. Not only were many immigrants of color prevented by U.S. immigration law from entering the United States, so were Southern and Eastern Europeans including Greeks, Italians, Poles, and Portuguese. Without the Civil Rights Movement, tens of millions of immigrants and their descendants would not be in the United States today.

But Rothstein’s point is deeper than the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. He writes:

When we become Americans, we accept not only citizenship’s privileges that we did not earn but also its responsibilities to correct wrongs that we did not commit. It was our government that segregated American neighborhoods, whether we or our ancestors bore witness to it, and it is our government that now must craft remedies.

American immigrants—of which I am one—cannot pretend that America’s history as a slave society bears no relation and has no consequence for the America that they live in today. We cannot carve the history of racial oppression out of the history of America. While Rothstein directs his message to immigrants, it really applies to all Americans. Only when we accept and own this history will it be clear to us what needs to be done to move the country forward.


About the Series

Since 1976, the United States has designated February as Black History Month to honor the often overlooked achievements of black Americans throughout the country’s history. Demos is honoring Black History Month by highlighting reflections from some of our staff. We welcome you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts with us on social media using #blackhistorymonth.