The corporate drive to automate and relocate manufacturing jobs split the black community into two separate and distinct economic groups. Millions of unskilled workers and their families became part of what social historians now call an underclass—a permanently unemployed part of the population whose unskilled labor is no longer required and who live hand-to-mouth, generation-to-generation, as wards of the state. A second smaller group of black mid-dle-class professionals have been put on the public payroll to administer the many public-assistance programs des-igned to assist this new urban underclass. The system represents a kind of “welfare colonialism” say authors Mich-ael Brown and Steven Erie, “where blacks were called upon to administer their own state of dependence.”^^
It is possible that the country might have taken greater notice of the impact that automation was having on black America in the 1960s and 1970s, had not a significant number of African-Americans been absorbed into public-se-ctor jobs. As early as 1970, sociologist Sidney Willhelm observed that “As the government becomes the foremost employer for the working force in general during the transition into automation, it becomes even more so for the black worker Indeed, if it were not for the government, negroes who lost their jobs in the business world would swell the unemployment ratio to fantastic heights.”^^
The public image of an affluent and growing black middle class was enough to partially deflect attention away fr-om the growing plight of a large new black underclass that had become the first casualty of automation and the new displacement technologies.
Technological unemployment has fundamentally altered the sociology of Americas black community. Permanent job-lessness has led to an escalating crime wave in the streets of Americas cities and the wholesale disintegration of black family life. The statistics are chilling. By the late 1980s one out of every four young African American males was either in prison or on probation. In the nations capital, Washington DC, 42 percent of the black male populat-ion between eighteen and
twenty-five years of age is either in jail, on parole, awaiting trial, or being sought by the police. The leading cause of death among young black males is now murder.^^
In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now a U.S. senator, published a controversial report on “Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family” in which he argued rather forcefully that ‘The underemployment of the negro father has led to the break-up of the Negro family.”^^ When that report was written, 25 percent of all black births were out of wedlock and nearly 25 percent of all black families were headed by women. Single-parent households headed by women are typically locked into a cycle of welfare dependency that is self-perpetuating generation after generation, with a high number of teenage pregnancies out of wedlock, a disproportionate school dropout rate, and continued welfare dependency. Today, 62 percent of all black families are single-parent households.^^
These statistics are likely to rise in the remainder of the decade, as an increasing number of unskilled black work-ers are let go in the current wave of re-engineering and downsizing. According to a report issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, black wage earners made up nearly one third of the 180,000 manufacturing jobs lost in 1990 and 1991.^^ Blacks also suffered disproportionately in the loss of white collar and service jobs in the early 1990s. The reason for the heavy losses in black employment, according to The Wall Street Journal, is that “blacks were concentrated in the most expendable jobs. More than half of all black workers held positions in the four job categories where companies made net employment cuts: office and clerical, skilled, semi-skilled and laborers.”^^ John Johnson, the director of labor for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peop-le (NAACP), says that “what the whites often dont realize is that while they are in a recession, blacks are in a depres-sion. ‘^^
More than forty years ago, at the dawn of the computer age, the father of cybernetics, Norbert Weiner, warned of the likely adverse consequences of the new automation technologies. “Let us remember,” he said, “that the auto-matic machine … is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic consequences of slave labor.”^^ Not surprisingly, the first community to be devastated by the cybernetics revolution was black America. With the introduction of automated machines, it was possible to substitute less costly, inanimate forms of
labor for millions of African-Americans who had long toiled at the bottom of the economic pyramid, first as plantat-ion slaves, then as sharecroppers, and finally as unskilled labor in northern factories and foundries.
For the first time in American history, the African-American was no longer needed in the economic system. Sidney Willhelm summed up the historical significance of what had taken place in his book Who Needs the Negro? “With the onset of automation the Negro moves out of his historical state of oppression into one of uselessness. Increa-singly, he is not so much economically exploited as he is irrelevant. . . . The dominant whites no longer need to exploit the black minority: as automation proceeds, it will be easier for the former to disregard the latter. In short. 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.”^^
Writing from his prison cell in the Birmingham jail, the Reverend Martin Luther King lamented the ever-worsening self-image of black Americans who were “forever fighting a degenerating sense of *no-bodiness.’ “^^ Marx s reser-ve army of exploited labor had been reduced to Ralph Ellisons specter of the “invisible man.” Automation had ma-de large numbers of black workers obsolete. The economic constraints that had traditionally kept black Americans “in line” and passively dependent on the white power structure for their livelihoods, disappeared. Vanquished and forgotten, thousands of urban black Americans vented their frustration and anger by taking to the streets in urban ghettos across the country. The rioting began in Watts in 1965 and spread east to Detroit and other northern ind-ustrial cities over the remainder of the decade. After the Watts riots, one of the local residents delivered a terse postmortem warning to the nation that spoke directly to the pent-up rage that had led to the outbreak. “The whit-es,” he declared, “think they can just bottle people up in an area like Watts and then forget about them. It didn’t work.”^^
It should be noted that not all civil rights leaders at the time accurately diagnosed the problem at hand. Many tra-ditional leaders in more mainstream black organizations continued to perceive the black plight in strictly political te-rms, arguing that social discrimination was at the root of the crisis and that antidiscrimination laws were the appro-priate cure. A few, however, saw what was taking place in the economy as a precursor of a more fundamental change in black-white
relations, with ominous consequences for the future of America. In the conclusion to his poignant book on the su-bject, Sidney Willhelm wrote, “An underestimation of the technological revolution can only lead to an underestimati-on of the concomitant racial revolution from exploitation to uselessness; to misjudge the present as but a continu-ation of industrialization rather than the dawn of a new technological era, assures an inability to anticipate the va-stly different system of race relations awaiting the displaced Negro”^^
Willhelm s prediction proved correct. Today, millions of African-Americans find themselves hopelessly trapped in a permanent underclass. Unskilled and unneeded, the commodity value of their labor has been rendered virtually us-eless by the automated technologies that have come to displace them in the new high-tech global economy.


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