Later today I’m giving a talk on labor and racial inequality as part of a conference on human rights and the city. Particularly given what’s going on in Wisconsin and the rest of the country this subject is incredibly important. The take home points:

When we speak of racial inequality in the labor force we’re talking four different types of labor divides. The divide between “good” and “bad” jobs. The divide between unionized and non-unionized jobs. The divide between the employed and unemployed. The divide between being in the labor force and not being in the labor force.

  • The difference between good and bad jobs is simple. Good jobs are jobs that offer benefits, living wages (at least), stable hours, job security, dignity and due process, and safe working conditions (among other things). A significant portion of job growth during the flushest economy in the modern era (during the Clinton years) came from the growth in bad jobs. Approximately 75% of jobs in the worst of the “bad job sector” went to African Americans and Latinos. On the other hand approximately 75% of the jobs in the best of the “good job sector” went to whites.  Good jobs increasingly become associated with white skin. Bad jobs increasingly become associated with non-white skin. When people think “janitor” or low end “landscaper” certain images come to mind.
  • Unionization rates for blacks and Asian Americans are high compared to their overall population percentage. Unionization rates for whites and Latinos on the other hand are low–and for whites, extremely low.
  • If instead of looking at unemployment figures (which take people who aren’t looking for work out of the equation) we look at employment-population ratios we see a significant disparity. As of March 2011 the black employment-population ratio is 51.6, while the white employment-population ratio is 59.1. As non-Latino whites and Latino whites are combined here, there is reason to suspect that the white employment-population ratio would be higher if Latinos were disaggregated. Although white unemployment is significant high compared to historic levels, black and Latino unemployment have been at what could be called crisis levels for years.
  • All of the figures above are produced using the civilian “non-institutionalized” population. The institutionalized population is the elephant in the room here, as approximately 7.2 million Americans are either on parole, in prison, in jail, or on probation. And over half of this population is African American.
  • Although a number of whites face significant levels of job insecurity and anxiety, we associate class and race. People who don’t work, can’t work, won’t work, are viewed with derision and disgust because they are viewed as a racially distinct population.

There’s a significant spatial component here. Non-productive and extremely productive bodies are concentrated in metropolitan areas….and non-productive bodies are concentrated in cities. Although black middle class flight to suburbs is increasing, particularly in places like Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C., poor and working class blacks are still largely concentrated in cities. In as much as a spatial mismatch exists whereby “good jobs” are concentrated in suburbs and “bad jobs/no jobs” are concentrated in cities, poor and working class non-whites are left out. The urban education crisis exacerbates this divide as urban school districts still works to create labor for the manufacturing sector–a sector that hasn’t actively hired urban populations for four decades.

There’s also a significant cultural element here. Chris Rock’s distinction between black people and niggas is important here. Democracy isn’t just about rights but it’s about a type of pluralism that embraces instead of tolerating difference. I used the phrase “non-productive bodies” above. The phrase “non-productive” doesn’t really work here…but I think counter-productive does. The population disconnected from the labor force is also the population viewed as being counter-productive. Their very existence threatens the existence of the rest of the state. And this idea is not only reproduced within white spaces, but within non-white ones as well. Latino citizens tend to view Latino undocumented workers with derision. Black men and women tend to view the nigga with derision.

The end result of these four inter-related processes is increased support for punitive approaches to governance. Increased support for tax reduction (except for punitive approaches). Decreased support for collective bargaining.

In order to deal with this we need an aggressive labor movement that recognizes the role of racial inequality in producing and generating support for labor divides, and acknowledges both simple racial diversity and a deeper racial pluralism as something to be fought for. But in as much as the changes I chart above occur within a larger economic structure that increasingly requires less and less raw labor, it is possible we need to use the deeper racial pluralism to begin to question what work and labor should mean within cities and within a 21st century America.