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Clarence Lusane

Excerpted from: Clarence Lusane, Persisting Disparities: Globalization and the Economic Status of African Americans , 2 Howard Law Journal 431-450, 436-439 , 450 (Spring 1999) (118 Footnotes)

 

Writing during the economic boom of the 1960s and 1970s, scholar Sidney Wilhelm argued that African Americans were being made obsolete as workers by new technologies and automation. He wrote,

with the onset of automation, the Negro moves out of his historical state of oppression into one of uselessness. Increasingly, he is not so much economically exploited as he is irrelevant. The tremendous historical change is taking place in these terms: he is not needed ... white America, by a more perfect application of mechanization and a vigorous reliance upon automation, disposes of the Negro; consequently, the Negro transforms from an exploited labor force into an outcast.

With profound insight, Wilhelm notes that

an underestimation of the technological revolution can only lead to an underestimation of the concomitant racial revolution from exploitation to uselessness; to misjudge the present as but a continuation of industrialization rather than the dawn of a new technological era, assures an inability to anticipate the vastly different system of race relations awaiting the displaced Negro.

What Wilhelm correctly anticipated was the impact of globalized production on the employment and economic life of the black community. Deindustrialization is one aspect of a global economic restructuring that has resulted from new productive, information, communication, and computer technologies. In the 1970s and 1980s, while all U.S. manufacturing workers have been affected by factories moving from the United States to other nations, black workers have been especially hard hit in cities such as St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In these cities, African Americans comprise a significant percentage of the population. In Philadelphia, 64 percent of the manufacturing jobs were lost, resulting in the elimination of 160,000 jobs. In Chicago, the figure was 60 percent (326,000 jobs), in New York, 58 percent(520,000 jobs), and in Detroit, 51 percent (108,000 jobs). African Americans are also situated in regions of the nation that have suffered the most from deindustrialization. According to economist Lester Henry, "Plant closings in the 1970s ... were heaviest in the Northeast and in the old South, the two areas of the country where African Americans are most populous."

For those African Americans who have less than a college education, the loss of manufacturing jobs seriously undermines their opportunities for employment. Researchers John Bound and Richard Freeman contend that "up to half of the huge employment declines for less-educated blacks might be explained by industrial shifts away from manufacturing toward other sectors."

In recent years, there has been a shift toward reindustrialization in the United States. This development, however, is not necessarily good news for African Americans. A number of scholars have speculated that racial discrimination plays a role in the decisions regarding where new plants (and new jobs) are placed by foreign investors. While evidence is scarce, some believe that new plants are deliberately placed outside of the accessibility range of inner-city residents who are disproportionately African American in many areas. Political scientist Robert Smith, for instance, points to "[a] study of the location decisions of Japanese firms in the United States and of American auto companies found a fairly consistent pattern of locations in rural and suburban areas about thirty miles from the nearest concentration of blacks, a distance thought to be about the limits of worker commuter time." Similarly, economist Lester Henry notes, "The pattern of firms, both foreign and domestic, when choosing sites for opening new plants, has been away from predominantly nonwhite areas ... . The Japanese and other German firms have also shown a similar preference for plant location in suburban and sunbelt areas where few nonwhites reside." Even if premeditation is not present, the consequences of these site decisions exacerbate the job search crisis growing among the urban black poor.

As the General Accounting Office (GAO) noted, however, it was not only in manufacturing that black job loss was disproportionate. In a study on the impact of the changing economy and the recession of the early 1990s on minorities, the GAO noted, "[b]lacks were the only racial group to suffer a net job loss during the 1990-91 economic downturn." The study covered a wide range of firms and many different levels of occupations from blue-collar to white-collar.

In the public sector, black job cuts have also been disproportionate. According to the San Jose Mercury, when the federal government downsized in 1992, blacks were fired at more than twice the rate of whites. The Mercury stated, "[b]lacks who were 17 percent of the executive branch workforce in 1992 were 39 percent of those dismissed. Whites made up 72 percent of the workforce and only 48 percent of those fired." The newspaper went on to say,

[i]t's not that [blacks] have less education, experience, and seniority. The difference has nothing to do with job performance ... . Blacks are fired more often because of their skin color ... . Rank didn't help. Black senior managers were out the door as often as black clerks. It gets worse. The deck is stacked against fired minority workers with legitimate grounds for reinstatement, the study shows. They win only one in every 100 appeals.

In addition, a GAO study found that African Americans more than whites or Latinos "experience the longest spells of unemployment among displaced workers who eventually found jobs and showed the largest loss in wages in their new jobs."

These general trends have been compounded by recent regional and international trade agreements. While these pacts are not racial in character or construction, that they have a racial dimension should not be ignored. NAFTA, GATT, and the proposed MAI have had significant impact on the U.S. economy, and by extrapolation, on the African American community.

. . .

Globalization is neither inherently bad nor good. It is a process of development that involves many actors attempting to meet their own interests and objectives in an environment that links local, national, and international concerns. The critical questions confronting all of these constituencies are how will this process be managed and in whose interest will it speak. In this context, African Americans must raise their voices and participate in the discourses that are shaping global policy, politics, and economics. While race does not necessarily govern, in all instances, the unfolding of globalization, its presence must not be either ignored or silently sanctioned.

Labor organizations, environmental groups, and others have called for a revocation and rewriting of NAFTA. Although this is unlikely to occur, future trade pacts must be more democratic in their creation and more sensitive to the issues raised by these groups and other communities who desire "fair" trade and not just free trade policies. Along these lines, African-American activists and intellectuals must engage themselves in the policy construction process regarding foreign economic policy. At a minimum, future trade pacts should include:

. Provisions for monitoring and correcting racial and gender concerns

. Provisions for affirmative action and, where appropriate, minority set- asides

. Mechanisms for enforcement of the above

It is in the interest of the Black community to become familiar with the strategies and tactics of lobbying in this arena. As globalization continues to grow, related issues affecting African Americans will expand and require political and policy responses. A critical need will be to develop cross- national alliances and cooperation with groups in the developed and developing worlds who face similar situations.

 
 
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