Racial inequality in the work force

February 22, 1998|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,Special to the Sun

"American Work: Black and White Labor Since 1600," by Jacqueline Jones. W.W. Norton. 512 pages. $29.95.

In the discussion of racial inequality in America, the most radical point that can be made is to recall our nation's history. With national debate dominated by those who hint that affirmative action programs are the only obstacle to "color blindness," it seems subversive to recall how African-Americans have been treated for almost four centuries.

That is what Jacqueline Jones does in "American Work: Black and White Labor Since 1600," and her painstakingly researched volume is an invaluable antidote to those who argue that our shameful past has no relevance to our perplexing present.

By concentrating on how Americans have earned their livelihoods since the colonial era, she shows how racial and economic inequalities emerged, prevailed and persist to this day. At a moment when our leaders tell us we are entering a "global economy" and "the information age," Jones recalls how blacks have been held back during every other social and economic transformation.

She notes that economic and political elites have used stereotypes over the years to demean African-Americans and divide them from other working Americans. In terms that persist in the current debates over welfare and "racial preferences," blacks have been depicted simultaneously as too lazy to work and as fierce and favored competitors for jobs.

If it offered nothing else, this book would be essential for explaining an era more often recalled by grandparents than by professors, pundits, or policymakers - how factory and office jobs alike were racially stratified during the first decades of this century.

"American Work" has faults that flow from its strengths.

As a study of racism, it downplays the ways in which working Americans of all backgrounds have strived to improve their condition, part of the context for any history of African-Americans in the workplace. Today's America is treated almost as an afterthought, and it is unclear how much inequality Jones ascribes to current discrimination and how much to the impact of economic change upon a society that has made significant efforts to equalize opportunities.

Most of all, by suggesting that the present is a mirror image of the past, she ignores important issues facing contemporary Americans. While her work answers the arguments of such authors as Dinesh D'Sousa and Charles Murray who apparently believe that racism no longer is, and perhaps never really was, a problem, she ignores the persuasive thesis of the liberal sociologist William Julius Wilson.

In surveys of present conditions that are as detailed as Jones' study of the past, Wilson suggests that historical discrimination and present deindustrialization have combined to create conditions in inner-city communities where "work disappears."

Thus, while most African Americans are participating in the economy, others have been left isolated not only from job opportunities but also from the mainstream culture and its emphasis on education and employment. While Jones recalls the past, Wilson best explains our present, and this valuable work displays both the merits and the limits of an outstanding study of history.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton fro 1992 through 1994. He is the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties" and a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.

Pub Date: 2/22/98

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