Throughout its history, racial and ethnic discrimination has been one of its most fundamental components of U.S. politics and culture. Despite the enormous efforts invested in the development of equal opportunities, racial inequities continue to persist. They frequently translate into labor market discrepancies, which do not allow ethnic minorities to earn higher wages and/or make a decent career. Edna Bonacich (1972) suggests that ethnicity is not the sole factor of the split labor market. The author defends the importance of various personal, institutional and governmental factors in shaping the ethnic structure of labor in the developed society. Unfortunately, even in the presence of the solid government protection and relevant labor information, ethnic minorities face the glass ceiling on their way to wage equality.
Whether race and ethnicity predetermine wage differentials in the labor market has long been a matter of professional debates. Bonacich (1972) talks about the scope of ethnic and racial antagonism and its implications for the quality of labor relations and wage levels in the developed society. The author claims that ethnic antagonism in societies can take two distinct forms (Bonacich, 1972). First, it manifests through exclusion movements. Such movements were particularly notable in Australia. They were designed to prevent ethnic and racial minorities from accessing the basic social resources and becoming members of the dominant society. Second, caste systems are developed to reinforce the importance of the discriminated group for the survival of the entire society (Bonacich, 1972).
In the United States, the caste system used to be a preferred option. Bonacich (1972) says that the U.S. showed both forms of discrimination. In reality, the beginning of the country's history was marked with the growing reliance on the immigrant newcomers, who made an enormous contribution in the creation of its infrastructure. Since the end of the 17th century, Africans served as the primary source of labor supply in America (Takaki, 2012). African workers were used as property until the beginning of the Civil War (Takaki, 2012). Likewise, hundreds of the Irish became maids, construction workers, and factory employees (Takaki, 2012). Certainly, such events as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act should not be ignored. Takaki (2012) describes it as the first legal document that placed an official ban on immigration based on nationality. Yet, it is wrong to believe that both castes and exclusion systems operated in the U.S. on equal terms. Bonacich (1972) seems to underestimate the perseverance, with which Americans sought to use immigrant labor at their own advantage.
Another interesting aspect of Bonacich's (1972) article is the analysis of different factors behind the labor market split. The researcher argues that ethnicity is not the sole predictor of wage differentials in the labor market. One of the main price determinants is the level of living. In other words, ethnic groups throw themselves into the labor market without considering its deficiencies, when they are too poor to demand decent conditions for their work (Bonacich, 1972). Bonacich (1972) is right: the prevailing majority of ethnic immigrants who came to America at the beginning of the 18th century sought better conditions of life. The quality of life in their native lands was too low to keep them from immigration. For instance, the Jews were displaced as a result of Russian pogroms. They wanted to find a new place of residence (Takaki, 2012). Simultaneously, the Irish were brought to America as captives and servants. Only in the 19th century, the nature of Irish immigration to the U.S. changed to reflect the imminent desire of the Irish people to escape the Potato Famine (Takaki, 2012). Thus, poor living standards alone cannot explain either the nature or persistence of wage gaps based on ethnicity and race.
Nevertheless, the poverty argument seems to be the most salient in Bonacich's (1972) article. The researcher suggests that the lack of information and political resources hinders the development of equal opportunities in the labor market (Bonacich, 1972). On the one hand, ethnic minorities fail to realize their right for employment, since they are too ignorant to sign a decent employment contract. On the other hand, their political resources can be too poor to protect them from the risks of employment discrimination (Bonacich, 1972). Neither of the two arguments is fully justified. To start with, the immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 18th-19th centuries could hardly be called ignorant. On the contrary, they fought to overcome the persistent prejudice and indifference in the White majority. In 1676, discontented African workers organized an uprising to demand better conditions of work (Takaki, 2012). Most immigrant workers were aware of the existing employment differentials but were too weak or isolated to act against discrimination.
Bonacich (1972) is partially right that the absence of political resources slowed down the progress of the national struggle for equality in America. For a long time, government did not do anything to change the situation. Yet, even in the presence of formal systems to close wage gaps, discrimination in labor and wage differentials continued. The Declaration of Independence had to set the stage for the development of new relationships based on equity and justice. In reality, it failed to eradicate the prejudice facing minority workers in the labor market. The Jews demanded that the American government protect their people from Hitler's death camps (Takaki, 2012). Contrary to their expectations, they encountered even greater indifference and prejudice (Takaki, 2012). Instead of promoting equality principles and fostering their implementation, America did everything to stabilize the existing social structures and turn discrimination into a source of labor profits. Even today, discrimination on the basis of race and prejudice remains an inevitable component of labor relations in America.
To conclude, Bonacich (1972) provides an interesting insight into the nature of wage gaps in the U.S. labor market. Still, her arguments lack any historical realism. Neither ignorance nor the lack of political resources can explain the persistent nature of ethnic antagonism in the labor market. Even in the presence of multiple formal systems to protect ethnic minorities, discrimination remains an essential element of the labor market agenda in the U.S.
- Bonacich, E. (1972). A theory of ethnic antagonism: The split labor market. American Sociological Review, 37(5), 547-559.
- Takaki, R. (2012). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. NY: Back Bay Books.