Race and Economics


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Overall U.S. unemployment is 9.1 percent. For white adults, it’s 8 percent, and for white teens, 23 percent. Black adult unemployment stands at 17 percent, and for black teens, it’s 40 percent, more than 50 percent in some cities, for example, Washington.

Chapter 3 of “Race and Economics,” my most recent book, starts out, “Some might find it puzzling that during times of gross racial discrimination, black unemployment was lower and blacks were more active in the labor force than they are today.” Up until the late 1950s, the labor force participation rate of black teens and adults was equal to or greater than their white counterparts. In fact, in 1910, 71 percent of black males older than 9 were employed, compared with 51 percent for whites. As early as 1890, the duration of unemployment among blacks was shorter than it was among whites, whereas today unemployment is both higher and longer-lasting among blacks than among whites.

How might one explain yesteryear’s lower black unemployment and greater labor force participation? The usual academic, civil rights or media racial discrimination explanation for black/white socio-economic differences just wouldn’t hold up. I can’t imagine even the most harebrained professor, civil rights leader or media “expert” arguing that there was less discrimination a century ago and that explains why there was greater black labor market participation. Racial discrimination or low skills can explain low wages but not unemployment.

During the 1930s, there were a number of federal government interventions that changed the black employment picture. The first was the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which mandated minimum wages on federally financed or assisted construction projects. During the bill’s legislative debate, the racial objectives were clear. Rep. John Cochran, D-Mo., said he had “received numerous complaints … about Southern contractors employing low-paid colored mechanics getting work and bringing the employees from the South.” Rep. Clayton Allgood, D-Ala., complained: “Reference has been made to a contractor from Alabama who went to New York with bootleg labor.

… That contractor has cheap colored labor that he transports, and he puts them in cabins, and it is labor of that sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country.” Rep. William Upshaw, D-Ga., spoke of the “superabundance or large aggregation of Negro labor.” American Federation of Labor President William Green said, “Colored labor is being sought to demoralize wage rates.” For decades after Davis-Bacon enactment, black workers on federally financed or assisted construction projects virtually disappeared. The Davis-Bacon Act is still on the books, and tragically today’s black congressmen, doing the bidding of their labor union allies, vote against any effort to modify or eliminate its restrictions.

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  • Jim

    the business men have been responsible for blocking attempts to restrict the entry of illegal aliens into the country. The illegals have bumped unskilled blacks from their traditional jobs.

    Yet no one cried racism. How come?

  • Ageofreason

    Labor unions have always been racist, and have always been progressive, socialist or outright Marxist. Racism and socialism are joined at the hip. A hundred years ago, it was the United Mine Workers who excluded Chinese workers in their contracts, and kept them out of the coal mines on the excuse that their lack of English made them dangerous. What the union punks failed to mention was that a huge proportion of the miners, new immigrants from Europe, spoke little English either, but glady backed the socialist unions. Wipe the filth off a union supporter and you'll find a racist under the dirt every time.

  • StephenD

    I recall as a young teen seeking employment with the qualifier that I'd work for 2 weeks and if they weren't happy with me they owed me nothing. I always found work. As far as $4. worth from a $7. per hr. worker, why not have a graded entry level wage rate? Almost like the apprentice programs for skilled labor. A modified version could be employed for just about any manual labor position. An unskilled man hired to operate an assembly machine gets hired at $5.00 per hour until the prescribed training is complete (say 4 weeks) then is automatically raised to the $7. per hour. I bet more companies would be hiring and more unemployed folks would be willing to participate.

  • lisag

    Isn't this why companies go overseas with their factories. Cheap, unending supply of labor. When your self image is of a rich rapper or super star athlete how likely are you to want to work for a small wage. What unemployed young black people need to realize is that there is dignity in working your way up. There is no dignity to being the father of kids who you either want aborted or ignore.

  • FlyanSosser

    I wonder how Affirmative-Action works into this mix. I mean, how many excuses do we need?