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Employment Mobility and the Belated Emergence of the Black Middle Class

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“Build back” means restoring the government and business investments in the productive capabilities of the U.S. labor force that created a growing middle class in the three decades after World War II

As the Covid-19 pandemic takes its disproportionate toll on African Americans, the historical perspective in this working paper provides insight into the socioeconomic conditions under which President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign promise to “build back better” might actually begin to deliver the equal employment opportunity that was promised by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Far from becoming the Great Society that President Lyndon Johnson promised, the United States has devolved into a greedy society in which economic inequality has run rampant, leaving most African Americans behind. In this installment of our “Fifty Years After” project, we sketch a long-term historical perspective on the Black employment experience from the last decades of the nineteenth century into the 1970s. We follow the transition from the cotton economy of the post-slavery South to the migration that accelerated during World War I as large numbers of Blacks sought employment in mass-production industries in Northern cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. For the interwar decades, we focus in particular on the Black employment experience in the Detroit automobile industry. During World War II, especially under pressure from President Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practices Committee, Blacks experienced tangible upward employment mobility, only to see much of it disappear with demobilization. In the 1960s and into the 1970s, however, supported by the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Blacks made significant advances in employment opportunity, especially by moving up the blue-collar occupational hierarchy into semiskilled and skilled unionized jobs. These employment gains for Blacks occurred within a specific historical context that included a) strong demand for blue-collar and clerical labor in the U.S. mass-production industries, which still dominated in global competition; b) the unquestioned employment norm within major U.S. business corporations of a career with one company, supported at the blue-collar level by mass- production unions that had become accepted institutions in the U.S. business system; c) the upward intergenerational mobility of white households from blue-collar employment requiring no more than a high-school education to white-collar employment requiring a higher education, creating space for Blacks to fill the blue-collar void; and d) a relative absence of an influx of immigrants as labor-market competition to Black employment. As we will document in the remaining papers in this series, from the 1980s these conditions changed dramatically, resulting in erosion of the blue-collar gains that Blacks had achieved in the 1960s and 1970s as the Great Society promise of equal employment opportunity for all Americans disappeared.

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