What's Happening to America's Black Working Class?

06/24/2015 10:55 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

The killings in Charleston, South Carolina has produced a lot of talk about healing and forgiveness, some important discussion of racism in the United States, and not enough attention to gun control. But there has been virtually no examination of the structural economic problems that have been eating away at the Black working class in the United States. There was some halting talk about racism and economic inequality after the Baltimore riots, but that was quickly forgotten when attention shifted to Charleston.

According to President Obama and the United States Department of Education, teachers and schools are supposed to prepare students for 21st century careers. Meanwhile school districts are supposed to partner with businesses because businesses know better than educators what will work in classrooms and what is needed for the future workforce.

But what exactly do 21st century careers look like? Actually, no one seems to know. However according to the United States Department of Labor, one big growth area will be low paid service workers in the fast-food industry. Another big growth area will be low paid home care attendants taking care of ageing baby-boomers.

The economic future does not look bright for America's working class. But recent reports show that dismal economic future is already here for members of minority groups, especially working-class African Americans.

I need to open with a little personal history that has shaped my point of view on this question. In 1975, as a result of the New York City financial crisis, I was laid-off as a teacher after working one year at a middle school in Brooklyn. Initially 13,000 teachers were let go and after 8,000 were called back, 5,000 positions were eliminated. I was one of the eliminated. I fully expected to be reassigned so I worked as a per diem substitute for a year at my old school, essentially in my old job. Eventually I had to accept that being eliminated was more or less permanent. I spent another year at a series of truck driving jobs; I had worked as a truck and school bus driver while in graduate school.

Finally I was hired as a bus operator for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). I ended up driving on the midnight shift out of the East New York Brooklyn Depot that served some of the poorest and hard-pressed Black and Latino communities in the city - East New York, Brownsville, Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, and Williamsburg. Bus operator was a good union job with a decent salary, built-in overtime, and benefits that helped me support my family until I finally returned to teaching.

As best as I can remember, I was the only White bus operator driving the midnight shift out of the ENY Depot. I found myself part of an interesting and welcoming group of fellow workers, almost all African American men, with a spirit of comradery and union solidarity and a killer-instinct for Flying Kings checkers. I had already returned to teaching, but they conducted two major strikes that rocked the city in 1980 and 2005.

Some of the things that were most memorable for me about these men was the pride they took in their jobs, their skill as drivers, and wearing their transit uniforms and the impact this union job with union wages and benefits had on their lives, families, churches, and communities. They were fathers, husbands, coaches, homeowners, church deacons, and community leaders - all because they had a respected union job with union wages and benefits.

But in the United States these types of jobs, so crucial to building a viable middle class, and so crucial to improving conditions for members of minority groups are either disappearing or being down-graded, largely for political reasons.

The transformation of work in the United States and its negative impact on Black workers dates back at least to the 1950s. In a book, America Now: The Anthropology of a Changing Culture, cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris examined a dramatic shift in the American workforce in the decades following World War II from blue-collar goods production industries to white-collar office work and pink-collar service industry jobs. The primary victim of this shift was Black men migrating from the south into northern cities who were eagerly looking for now non-existent factory work in declining industrial centers like Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh. Most of the new jobs went to White women who were entering the workforce in large numbers and were being gobbled up by employers hesitant to hire Black men.

According to a New York Times report, "[w]orking for the government has long been viewed by African-Americans as a relatively open pathway to the middle class," especially when they faced discrimination in the private sphere. However, inner-city workers, especially minority workers, took another big hit during the 1970s financial crisis. For example, in New York City, the Parks Department budget dropped by 60% between 1974 and 1980, leading to a workforce cut of over 4,000 workers or about half of its permanent and seasonal employees. Since 1995, instead of by unionized employees, New York City parks have been cleaned by volunteers and welfare recipients forced to do the jobs to receive welfare benefits, not salaries. In 2002, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani actually "fired" welfare recipients who had been promised they would eventually receive real jobs. In recent years the unpaid or low paid workforce has euphemistically been referred to as trainees. Instead of hiring new janitorial employees, the MTA has also considered using welfare recipients to clean the subways in order to receive their benefits.

In the years since the 2008 financial meltdown, budget cuts, tax freezes, and political opposition to government spending among White voters has meant a new decline in state, local and federal employment and new struggles for Black workers. While the economy overall may have recovered, public sector employment where many middle-class Black workers are concentrated has still not bounced back. According to the U.S. Labor Department, there are half a million fewer public sector jobs than before the start of the Great Recession. However if normal growth is factored in, that means there are almost two million fewer jobs in the public sector for people to fill. In addition, workers who have jobs in the public sector are increasingly under attack from right-wing Republicans like Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin who has tried to sharply restrict the bargaining power of public sector unions.

Recent riots in Baltimore, Maryland following have death of Freddie Gray while in police custody exposed the impact of decades of economic discrimination coupled with government cutbacks on Black communities. According to a CNN report, Maryland is the wealthiest state in the United States, but Blacks who live in Baltimore earn less than half per capita than do Whites in the state. As a result of decades of declining factoring work and the collapse of shipping from the port, the city of Baltimore exists in a state of "economic despair" with about a fourth of the population living below the poverty line. The official unemployment rate in 2013 for Black men between the ages of 20 and 24 was 37%, but the unofficial rate, counting people who are forced to work part-time, go to school because they can't find a job, or have stopped looking or never looked at all is probably double. The city has an estimated 16,000 abandoned buildings, which depresses the value of occupied homes so that they are worth on the average half of what similar housing is worth in the rest of the state. These conditions have contributed to a Third World-like life expectancy rate twenty-years lower than in more affluent Maryland communities.

Today, Blacks are one-third more likely to have a public sector job than non-Hispanic Whites. Approximately 20% of Black adults in the United States, members of the Black middle-class, work for one level of government or another. They teach school, deliver mail, drive buses, police communities, and work in offices. According to sociologist Jennifer Laird, "Compared to the private sector, the public sector has offered black and female workers better pay, job stability and more professional and managerial opportunities." But this class of work is dissolving and with it may go the future of America's Black middle class.

The African American bus operators I worked with in the 1970s, men who took pride in their jobs, their skill as drivers, and wearing their transit uniforms and the impact this union job with union wages and benefits had on their lives, families, churches, and communities may become as extinct as the dinosaurs.