Caught Between Technologies
Although African-Americans were unaware of it at the time of their trek north, a second technological revolution had already begun in the manufacturing industries of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York that once again would lock them out of gainful employment. This time the economic displacement created in its wake a new and permanent underclass in the inner cities and the conditions for widespread social unrest and violence for the rem-ainder of the century.
At first, blacks found limited access to unskilled jobs in the auto, steel, rubber, chemical, and meat-packing indust-ries. Northern industrialists often used them as strikebreakers or to fill the vacuum left by the decline in immigrant workers from abroad. The fortunes of black workers in the North improved steadily until 1954 and then began a forty-year historical decline.
In the mid-1950s, automation began taking its toll in the nation’s manufacturing sector Hardest hit were unskilled jobs in the very industries where black workers were concentrated. Between 1953 and 1962, 1.6 million blue collar jobs were lost in the manufacturing
sector. 13 Whereas the unemployment rate for black Americans had never exceeded 8.5 percent between 1947 and 1953, and the white rate of unemployment had never gone beyond 4.6 percent, by 1964 blacks were experi-encing an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent while white unemployment was only 5.9 percent. Ever since 1964 bl-ack unemployment in the United States has remained twice that of whites. ^4 Writing on The Problem of the Neg-ro Movement in 1964, civil rights activist Tom Kahn quipped, ‘Tt is as if racism, having put the Negro in his econ-omic place, stepped aside to watch technology destroy that place.”^5
Beginning in the mid 1950s, companies started building more automated manufacturing plants in the newly emerg-ing suburban industrial parks. Automation and suburban relocation created a crisis of tragic dimensions for unskill-ed black workers. The old multistoried factories of the central cities began to give way to new single-level plants that were more compatible with the new automation technologies. The limited availability of land and rising tax rat-es of the cities were a powerful disincentive, pushing manufacturing businesses into the newly emerging suburbs. The newly laid interstate highway system and the ring of metropolitan expressways being built around northern citi-es increasingly favored truck over train transport of goods, providing a further incentive to relocate plants to the suburbs. ^^ Finally, employers anxious to reduce labor costs and weaken the strength of unions saw relocation as a way to draw distance between plants and militant union concentrations. Eventually the same antiunion feelings pushed companies to locate plants in the South, Mexico, and overseas.
The new corporate strategy of automation and suburbanization became immediately apparent in the automotive in-dustry. Ford’s River Rouge complex in Detroit was long the flagship plant of the company’s far-flung operations. The Rouge plant was also the home of the UAW’s most vocal and militant local union, whose membership was over 30 percent black. So powerful was Local 600 of the UAW, that it could cripple Ford’s entire operation with a single strike action. ^7
Despite the fact that the Rouge complex had plenty of room for expansion. Ford management made the decision to move much of the production away from the site to new automated plants in the suburbs, in large part to wea-ken the union and regain control over its manufacturing operations. In 1945 the Rouge plant housed 85,000 work-ers. Just fifteen years later the employment rolls had plummeted to less than
30,000. Historian Thomas J. Sugrue notes that from the late 1940s through 1957, Ford spent more than $2.5 bilh-on on automation and plant expansion. Ford initiatives were matched by General Motors and Chrysler. Together, the Big Three auto companies constructed twenty-five new, more automated plants in the suburbs surrounding De–troit.”i«
Satellite businesses that serviced the automotive industry also began to automate production in the 1950s—espec-ially companies manufacturing machine tools, wire, car parts, and other metal products. Many auto-parts manufact-urers like Detroit’s Briggs Manufacturing and Murray Auto Body were forced to close up their shops in the mid- to- late 1950s as the giant automakers began to integrate their production processes, taking over more and more of the manufacturing of component parts in newly automated production lines. ^^
The number of manufacturing jobs in Detroit fell dramatically beginning in the mid-1950s as a result of the autom-ation and suburbanization of production. Black workers, who just a few years earlier were displaced by the mecha-nized cotton picker in the rural South, once again found themselves victims of mechanization. In the 1950s, 25.7 percent of Chrysler workers and 23 percent of General Motors workers were African-American. Equally important, because the black workers made up the bulk of the unskilled labor force, they were the first to be let go because of automation. In i960 a mere twenty-four black workers were counted among the 7,425 skilled workers at Chrysle-r. At General Motors, only sixty-seven blacks were among the more than 11,000 skilled workers on the payroll.^^ The productivity and unemployment figures tell the rest of the story. Between 1957 and 1964, manufacturing outp-ut doubled in the United States, while the number of blue collar workers fell by 3 percent.^^ Again, many of the first casualties of the new automation drive were black workers, who were disproportionately represented in the un-skilled jobs that were the first to be eliminated by the new machines. In manufacturing operations across the enti-re northern and western industrial belt, the forces of automation and suburbanization continued to take their toll on unskilled black workers, leaving tens of thousands of permanently unemployed men and women in their wake.
The introduction of computers and numerical control technology on the factory floor in the 1960s accelerated the process of technology displacement. In the nation’s four largest cities. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detr-oit, where blacks made up a large percentage of
the unskilled blue collar workforce—more than a million manufacturing, wholesale, and retail jobs were lost, many the result of technology displacement. Author James Boggs voiced the concern of many in the black community when he declared that “cybernation … is eliminating the ‘Negro jobs.’ “^^
As businesses fled to the suburbs, millions of white middle and working class families followed suit, relocating in new suburban subdivisions. The central cities became increasingly black and poor in the 1960s and 1970s. Sociol-ogist William Julius Wilson notes that “the proportion of blacks living inside central cities increased from 52 percent in i960 to 60 percent in 1973, while the proportion of whites residing inside central cities decreased from 31 perc-ent to 26 percent.” Wilson blames the exodus for a spiraling decline in the inner-city tax base, a precipitous drop in public services, and the entrapment of millions of black Americans in a self-perpetuating cycle of permanent un-employment and public assistance. In New York City in 1975, rnore than 15 percent of the residents were on so-me form of public assistance. In Chicago it was nearly 19 percent.^^
In the 1980s many of the nation’s northern cities partially revived by becoming hubs for the new information econ-omy. Scores of downtown areas made the transition from “centers of production and distribution of material goods to centers of administration, information exchange and higher order service provision.”^”^ The emerging knowledge–based industries have meant increased jobs for high-skilled white collar and service workers. For large numbers of African-Americans, however, the new urban renaissance has only served to accentuate the ever widening employ-ment and income gap between highly educated whites and poor unskilled blacks.
The only significant rise in employment among black Americans in the past tw^enty-five years has been in the pu-blic sector: more than 55 percent of the net increase in employment for blacks in the 1960s and 1970s occurred there.^^ Many black professionals found jobs in the federal programs spawned by the Great Society initiatives of President L\Tidon Johnson. Others found employment at the local and state le\ els, administering social service and welfare programs largely for the black community that was being displaced by the new forces of automation and suburbanization. In i960, 13.3 percent of the total employed black labor force was working in the public sect-or A decade later more than 21 percent of all black workers in America were on public payrolls.-^ By 1970 gover-nment employed 57 percent of all black
Caught Between Technologies