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The Effects of the Great Depression on Racial Minorities

The majority of America’s minorities had never had it good, so it’s not surprising that the Depression made their lot even more miserable. More than half of African Americans still lived in the South, most as tenant farmers or sharecroppers, meaning they farmed someone else’s land.

Almost all of those who worked and weren’t farmers held menial jobs that whites hadn’t wanted — until the Depression came along. When it did, the African Americans were shoved out of their jobs. As many as 400,000 left the South for cities in the North, which didn’t help much. By 1932, it’s estimated that half of the black U.S. population was on some form of relief.

There also wasn’t much of a “we’re all in this together” mentality. Segregation continued in nearly every walk of life, more than 60 blacks were murdered by lynching and other mob violence during the decade, and federal anti-lynching laws were defeated in Congress. Even many of the bold federal programs that came into being in the 1930s blatantly discriminated against African Americans.

Wage-setting programs allowed employers to pay black workers less than whites, farm aid programs often ignored African-American farmers, and job creation programs provided disproportionately fewer jobs to African Americans.

Some of the programs, however, helped everyone. Segregation in federal jobs did begin to slowly crumble, and some labor unions opened their membership to minorities. Such crumbs were enough to make many black voters leave the party of Lincoln behind, which they felt had done nothing for them, and vote Democratic for decades to come.

Other minority groups suffered similarly. Mexico had been exempted from the immigration restrictions of the 1920s, and as a result, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans came to the United States, mostly to the Southwest. Prior to the Depression, they were at least tolerated as a ready source of cheap labor.

In the 1930s, however, they were pushed out of jobs by desperate whites. Many thousands were deported, even some who were legal U.S. citizens, and as many as 500,000 returned to Mexico. Those of Asian descent, mostly on the West Coast, were likewise pushed out of jobs or relegated to jobs only within their own communities.

Native Americans had been largely ignored by the U.S. government since the 1880s. The general idea had been to gradually have Native Americans disappear into the American mainstream. In 1924, Congress made U.S. citizens of all Native Americans who weren’t already citizens, whether they wanted to be or not.

But preliminary studies done in the 1920s found that assimilation had failed. In 1934, Congress changed direction and passed laws that allowed Native Americans to retain their cultural identity. That did little for their economic well-being, and they remained perhaps the worst off of America’s minority groups.

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