Working Paper

The Unmaking of the Black Blue-Collar Middle Class

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How once-promising Black upward mobility reversed course, and what can be done about it

In the decade after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans made historic gains in accessing employment opportunities in racially integrated workplaces in U.S. business firms and government agencies. In the previous working papers in this series, we have shown that in the 1960s and 1970s, Blacks without college degrees were gaining access to the American middle class by moving into well-paid unionized jobs in capital-intensive mass production industries. At that time, major U.S. companies paid these blue-collar workers middle-class wages, offered stable employment, and provided employees with health and retirement benefits. Of particular importance to Blacks was the opening up to them of unionized semiskilled operative and skilled craft jobs, for which in a number of industries, and particularly those in the automobile and electronic manufacturing sectors, there was strong demand. In addition, by the end of the 1970s, buoyed by affirmative action and the growth of public-service employment, Blacks were experiencing upward mobility through employment in government agencies at local, state, and federal levels as well as in civil-society organizations, largely funded by government, to operate social and community development programs aimed at urban areas where Blacks lived.

By the end of the 1970s, there was an emergent blue-collar Black middle class in the United States. Most of these workers had no more than high-school educations but had sufficient earnings and benefits to provide their families with economic security, including realistic expectations that their children would have the opportunity to move up the economic ladder to join the ranks of the college-educated white-collar middle class. That is what had happened for whites in the post- World War II decades, and given the momentum provided by the dominant position of the United States in global manufacturing and the nation’s equal employment opportunity legislation, there was every reason to believe that Blacks would experience intergenerational upward mobility along a similar education-and-employment career path.

That did not happen. Overall, the 1980s and 1990s were decades of economic growth in the United States. For the emerging blue-collar Black middle class, however, the experience was of job loss, economic insecurity, and downward mobility. As the twentieth century ended and the twenty-first century began, moreover, it became apparent that this downward spiral was not confined to Blacks. Whites with only high-school educations also saw their blue-collar employment opportunities disappear, accompanied by lower wages, fewer benefits, and less security for those who continued to find employment in these jobs. The distress experienced by white Americans with the decline of the blue-collar middle class follows the downward trajectory that has adversely affected the socioeconomic positions of the much more vulnerable blue-collar Black middle class from the early 1980s.

In this paper, we document when, how, and why the unmaking of the blue-collar Black middle class occurred and intergenerational upward mobility of Blacks to the college-educated middle class was stifled. We focus on blue-collar layoffs and manufacturing-plant closings in an important sector for Black employment, the automobile industry from the early 1980s. We then document the adverse impact on Blacks that has occurred in government-sector employment in a financialized economy in which the dominant ideology is that concentration of income among the richest households promotes productive investment, with government spending only impeding that objective. Reduction of taxes primarily on the wealthy and the corporate sector, the ascendancy of political and economic beliefs that celebrate the efficiency and dynamism of “free market” business enterprise, and the denigration of the idea that government can solve social problems all combined to shrink government budgets, diminish regulatory enforcement, and scuttle initiatives that previously provided greater opportunity for African Americans in the government and civil- society sectors.