Many hoped that the election of the first African-American President of the United States meant a decisive turn in the long and troubled history of race relations in the United States. And indeed President Obama’s election was a signal success for the American racial settlement of the 1970s. But at the moment of its greatest success, that settlement—call it the Compromise of 1977—was beginning to unravel, as evidenced by the fact that President Obama’s nearly four years in office to date have witnessed decades of economic progress and rising political power in black America shifting into reverse.
The race question is like no other in American life. From the beginning of the colonial era through the Civil War and up until today, American efforts to grapple with (or to avoid grappling with) the practical, moral, political and institutional consequences of race have shaped our political and institutional life. The Virginia House of Burgesses, the first elected assembly in the American colonies, assembled on July 30, 1619. In that same year the White Lion and the Treasurer docked in Virginia and unloaded the first African slaves to reach the present-day United States. Since that time, the stories of American representative government and race have been entangled in American history. The very structure of the Federal government and the nature of the party system were shaped by the slavery issue. The slavery question also shaped and ultimately limited national expansion. It affected the practical meaning of Federalism itself and the meaning of the rule of law. Nor is that entanglement yet over.
At every stage of American history, complicated political and economic compromises surrounded the question of race, each one managing it for a time but, despite the hopes of many, never settling it once and for all—not even by dint of a horrendously destructive civil war. The first of these was Compromise of 1787. The U.S. Constitution was written in a way that effectively banned Congress from interfering with slavery in the states, and the political interests of the slave states were protected further by the three-fifths clause as well as by weighted representation in the Senate and the Electoral College. On the other hand, that first compromise was shaped by the belief of many of the Founders, including enlightened slave owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, that economic progress would before very long make slavery unprofitable and that gradual emancipation on a state-by-state basis would bring an end to this evil. Thus when Congress gained the power to ban the importation of new slaves after 1807, it exercised that power at the first opportunity with the enthusiastic consent of Jefferson and many other slaveholders.
Alas, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and the Industrial Revolution upset the constitutional settlement. Slavery transformed almost overnight from a dying and backward agricultural system into a vital link in the most dynamic industry of its time. The cotton looms of the industrializing world depended on slave-grown cotton from the American South. The huge returns on cotton spawned an enormous and complex web of interests. Great swathes of the shipping, insurance and banking industries of the North depended on slave-based commodity production in the South. As a result, the Compromise of 1787 no longer satisfied either pro- or anti-slavery forces. The slave system needed to expand; demand for cotton was growing exponentially but yields on cotton plantations fell as the demanding crop exhausted the soil. Anti-slavery forces, including the growing presence of educated free blacks in Northern states, no longer believed that slavery was on the road to extinction and began to worry that, instead of dying out, the economic power of the “slave interest” would increasingly dominate national politics.
The three great compromises of the antebellum years (1820, 1850 and 1854) each attempted to cope with the new situation created by the conversion of slavery into an aggressive and wealthy force that depended on territorial expansion. The formal elements of territorial compromise, dividing Federal territories into those open to slave settlement and those closed to it, aimed to preserve a rough electoral balance between slave and free states. These territorial concessions, however, could not offset the growing economic and demographic advantages of the free states. The railroad accomplished for the North’s free labor economy what the cotton gin had done for the South: thanks to the railroad, northern agricultural produce and manufactured goods became caught up in the rapidly expanding global economy. By the 1850s, the slave interest felt itself back on the defensive as new patterns of trade and production reduced the weight of cotton in the national economy.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln ran on a platform of what, in today’s language, might be called the containment of slavery. Lincoln essentially offered the slave states a return to the Compromise of 1787: He would preserve and even strengthen the constitutional protection of slavery where it existed, but he would prohibit the expansion of slavery into new territories. Additionally, the Republicans refused to expand into non-U.S. territories suitable for slavery; the 1850s had seen a range of diplomatic and filibustering efforts by Southerners aiming to annex Cuba and various parts of Central America in order to bring new “slavery-friendly” territory into the Union. In the efforts to find yet another sectional compromise to avoid civil war, Lincoln was adamant on the question of expansion, but he was flexible on the question of new constitutional guarantees to protect slavery where it already existed.
Indeed, oddly enough, Lincoln and Jefferson Davis shared the same belief about where a containment strategy would lead: If slavery could not expand, it would sooner or later disappear. Politically, the weight of the free states in the North would rise with slavery permanently confined to one section of the country, and economically the vitality of cotton agriculture would rapidly decline without fresh new land. Lincoln relished this future, but Davis was unwilling to consider any compromise that locked the South into a situation in which the territorial expansion of slavery could be blocked by Northern opposition. The South, in other words, was no longer content with the original racial compromises, which granted protection for slavery as it slowly withered away.
The result of this disagreement, of course, was a civil war and the forcible abolition of slavery. But the war did not remove the question of race from its place as a core factor in the shaping of American politics and order. Indeed, by taking slavery off the table, the Civil War raised the importance of race, for now that African Americans were all free, the question of their rights and their relationship to the Federal government moved to the forefront of American politics, and in many respects continues there today.
Before the Civil War, the question of the rights of free blacks, and indeed of all “persons of color”, was left to each state to decide. Some Northern states banned free blacks from settling there. Others gave them equal suffrage and property rights. In some states free blacks served on juries; in others they were excluded from the administration of justice. The slave states adopted codes of varying severity aimed at preventing free blacks from establishing rallying points for slave revolts. After the Civil War, questions about the place of free blacks in American life could no longer be treated as a secondary issue or left entirely to the states to decide. There were several states in which blacks were a majority—South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana—and, if allowed to vote, would dominate political life. The experience of the war, in which black soldiers fought and demonstrated heroism and courage, along with the strong sentiments in favor of equality that were reinforced by the war, gave new weight to demands for full social, political and economic rights for black people.
The politics of race thus became much more complicated during Reconstruction. For one thing, as a result of emancipation, the South actually stood to gain political power in Washington once the states of the former Confederacy were readmitted to the union. Blacks held in slavery counted as only three-fifths of a white man for purposes of allocating congressional seats and electoral votes. But now congressional representation had to be based on the full number of people living in a state. If blacks were denied the franchise but included in the census totals for assigning congressional seats and electoral votes, white Southerners would have gained political power by losing the Civil War.
The question of race relations in the South was intimately bound up in questions about the relations between the sections and the parties after the Civil War. In the end, a new great compromise was adopted that shaped American politics as well as race relations for almost a century. The Compromise of 1877, the year when the last Federal occupation troops left the last Southern states, had several dimensions. The South accepted the election of the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency over Samuel J. Tilden despite clear evidence of fraud in exchange for the removal of the troops and the real end of Reconstruction.
But more fundamentally, the white South accepted the results of the Civil War, acknowledging that slavery, secession and the quest for sectional equality were all at an end. The South would live peacefully and ultimately patriotically in a union dominated by Northern capitalists. White Southerners might complain about Northern banks and plutocrats (and they did for decades), but they would not take up arms. For its part, the North agreed to ignore some inconvenient constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction period, allowing each Southern state to manage race relations as its white voters saw fit. In particular, the North allowed the South to deny blacks the vote while counting them for representational purposes. The Republicans also accepted the renewal of real party competition at the national level; while the GOP would mostly control the White House in the generation after 1877, the Democrats would often control one or both houses of Congress thanks to the new weight of the “Solid South.”
The defeated South also benefited from other elements of the Compromise. The death of the Southern wing of the Republican Party after 1877 made the South a de facto one party region, so that Southern Senators and Representatives accumulated enormous power under the seniority system. The Democratic Party’s rule, adopted in 1832, that a presidential nominee had to have the support of two-thirds of convention delegates, gave the white South an effective veto over the Democratic presidential nomination. This meant that no Democrat from the North with national political aspirations would alienate Southern powerbrokers.
For blacks, the Compromise of 1877 was a disaster. Not for another eighty years would the Federal government seriously try to uphold the constitutional rights of black Americans in the Southern states. Disarmed, degraded, denied the franchise in much of the country, black Americans were relegated to second-class status in civic life. Economically most blacks remained marginalized and held in conditions of peonage (sharecropping) that offered little more freedom and opportunity than slavery itself.
Yet even in these conditions, blacks found a way forward. Dogged by disabilities, discrimination and even mob violence, courageous and determined people built an educational system in both the North and South and created a vibrant and competent middle and upper-middle class. Lawyers, teachers and professors, business entrepreneurs and above all ministers of the Gospel gradually built a national infrastructure of black leadership that lead the fight for black rights in the courts, in the press and on the street.
The mechanization of Southern agriculture then combined with the 20th-century industrial boom in the great Northern cities to promote what has been called the Great Migration. Millions of African Americans streamed out of the South to establish themselves in cities like New York, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles. Though discrimination and segregation were still present in these cities, there was more opportunity and certainly more freedom from mob violence and terror than in the Jim Crow South. There was another difference, too. In the North, blacks could vote and, as the Great Migration persisted, black voting strength became a significant factor in Northern urban politics. Politicians from both parties courted blacks, and largely as a result the issue of Federal civil rights legislation, nearly dead by 1900, revived. The Compromise of 1877 was coming undone.
Changes in political economy had clearly influenced past racial settlements, and now this was happening again. When the black population in America consisted largely of economically dependent sharecroppers in isolated rural areas, its members had little ability to communicate or work effectively together. It was not possible in early 20th-century conditions to provide much beyond the most basic education in these rural areas, especially against the opposition of the local power structures. And since sharecroppers often struggled under long-term debt (and high interest rates), they were dependent on their landlords—so it took great courage to speak up against the system. That was the case even without taking the ever-present threat of white mob violence and lynching into account. Clearly, the end of the sharecropping economy, the rise of the mass-manufacturing system and its gradual extension from North to South undermined the conditions that sustained the Compromise of 1877. Urbanized Northern blacks were educationally more advanced and politically more active. Corporations moving manufacturing into the South found the Jim Crow system and racial hierarchy an obstacle. The New Deal and World War II dramatically accelerated all these trends as African Americans entered the modern economy, the manufacturing economy entered the South, and the mass conscription of World War II (soon renewed for the Cold War) forced the armed forces to re-examine the practicability of racial segregation under modern conditions.
The Compromise of 1877 thus came under increasing pressure during the 1940s and, by the end of the decade, was clearly coming apart. President Truman’s order desegregating the armed forces in 1948 and Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 marked the decline and fall of the post-Reconstruction racial settlement. From 1947 through 1967, blacks’ median incomes rose at a blistering pace of 3.6 percent per year (while white median income grew on average by 2.8 percent per year). This change both reflected the progress of the Civil Rights movement and fuelled its further development.
Over the generation after World War Two the interplay of the civil rights movement and white backlash against it dominated the American political scene. Mob violence in the South and devastating riots across the nation’s cities, in the worst episodes of domestic violence since the Civil War, led to the most important wave of political change since Reconstruction. They led to the Compromise of 1977.
As the Compromise of 1877 began to break down, the country struggled with a series of issues: the legally mandated segregation of schools and public accommodations, mostly in the South; private segregation in housing and associations like private clubs; discrimination in employment, whether formal or (as in the case of many trade unions, informal through control over entry into apprenticeship programs); racism as a set of preconceptions and negative stereotypes that influenced public and private judgments about black capabilities and rights; and a set of issues related to the treatment of the poor by the police and by various levels of government. That struggle, encapsulated in the catchall phrase “the civil rights era”, was one of great progress in race relations. To an extent that was unimaginable as recently as the 1930s, Americans of all races and sections examined and discarded old ideas and practices deeply embedded in popular culture. One can speak of a national conversion experience; the American worldview of 1970 was radically different from that of 1930, and the word “conversion” is used advisedly, for much of the change of the national heart was channeled through religious institutions. Racial inequality had been a fundamental working assumption of American life before the civil rights revolution; afterwards the country was committed to fight inequality and work to build a society in which all races had equal opportunity to succeed.
The Compromise of 1877 had been deeply woven into the country’s political institutions, and it was not easily dismantled. Even as demonstrations and sit-ins swept the country, powerful Southern conservatives kept new civil rights legislation bottled up. In the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson used his mastery of the Senate and his close relationships with Southern powerbrokers to push the Voting Rights Act through Congress, the dam burst, and American race relations were fundamentally recast. The politics of race in the civil rights era were bitter and complicated. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended most forms of legal discrimination and the Voting Rights Act undid a century of Southern resistance to black voting. But resistance to “forced bussing” to achieve school integration spread from the South to the North in those years, and the openly segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace shocked the country by running strongly in Democratic primaries in the Northern states. Waves of race riots in the nation’s cities coming after the passage of the civil rights laws and intensifying after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King demonstrated that black anger was far from appeased by the 1960s reforms. White flight hollowed out cities like Detroit as whites fled what to many seemed an intolerable mix of crime, racial violence and busing; after a century of forced silence and deference, blacks developed a new culture of assertion and pride.
In the end, Americans stitched together another complex racial settlement to replace the discarded post-Reconstruction compromise. This “Compromise of 1977” was never formally negotiated, but it provides the framework within which Americans continue to work as we struggle with the country’s racial issues.
The inauguration of Jimmy Carter, a white Southern evangelical who was liberal on racial issues but conservative on moral and some social ones, marked an end to the period when the politics of race played a decisive role in national elections. One can call the post-civil rights era that began in 1977 a settlement or a compromise because, once again, it balanced various claims and demands. At its core, the compromise offered blacks unprecedented economic opportunity and social equality, but it also allowed for the stern and unrelenting repression of inner-city lawlessness and crime. Blacks who were ready, willing and able to participate in the American system found an open door and a favoring wind; blacks who for whatever reason were unable or unwilling to “play by the rules” faced long terms in prisons where gang violence and rape were routine.
It was a liberal settlement, not a radical one; claims for reparations for slavery were rejected, but society sought to compensate for past discrimination by offering greater opportunity to individuals in the here and now. In the same way, it mandated the desegregation of schools and workplaces but, after some initial experiments, no serious efforts were made to force integration (as opposed to banning discrimination) in housing patterns. People who wanted to live “with their own kind” could still do so, but they could no longer invoke deed restrictions or other legal means to preserve what President Carter in an unfortunate turn of phrase called the “ethnic purity” of their neighborhoods.
There were other ways in which the settlement both advanced and contained black interests and aspirations. The Voting Rights Act, for example, not only firmly secured the franchise for blacks; it also required that legislative districts be drawn in such a way as to guarantee the creation of black-majority districts whenever possible. This ensured the greatest number of black elected officials since Reconstruction, increasing the number of black Congressmen from four in 1960 to 42 in 2010. Similarly, in 1964, 94 blacks were serving either as Representatives or Senators in state legislatures, of whom 16 served in Southern states. By 2009, 628 blacks served in these positions. But the additional numbers of black elected officials did not always result in more favorable political outcomes. By concentrating largely Democratic minority voters in a few districts, the reforms reduced the chances for Democratic majority legislatures in the affected states and reduced the number of Democrats returned to Congress from Southern states. Blacks were a larger share of a smaller party, and in many states Republican legislatures were able to pass pretty much any laws they wished over the objections of Democrats both black and white. Not surprisingly, many Republicans continued to support key provisions of the Voting Rights Act as they studied its political effect.
One distinct element of the new racial settlement was the centrality of urban policy. Blacks were the last major American ethnic group to urbanize, but, when the Great Migration ended in 1970, 47 percent of blacks lived outside the old Confederacy, and the majority nationwide lived in urban areas. Race policy had once been primarily about the rural South; for the past fifty years it has been almost a synonym for urban policy. A steady flow of funds to the cities from the 1960s Model Cities program to the present day supported expenses beyond what the local tax base could support. In many cities, black-run political machines built up encrusted systems of corruption and incompetence with little oversight or prosecutorial review, unless the corruption became truly spectacular—as in Detroit and a few other cities.
The most consequential element of the new settlement was the commitment to build something the United States had not had before: a substantial black middle class. The Federal and state governments, universities, and large corporations set about systematically to hire and promote blacks. When normal hiring and recruiting methods fell short, more unconventional forms of affirmative action ensued. Significant efforts to increase the pool of black students and graduates capable of filling these jobs were mounted, and success was particularly high in government. In 2011, 11.6 percent of the total American workforce was black, but blacks accounted for 21 percent of postal employees and 20 percent of government employees nationwide. Government is the largest employer of black men and the second largest employer of black women. Government jobs are especially important for the black middle class. Teachers, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, state and city office workers, health workers: These are the jobs on which a generation of African Americans have built middle-class lives.
As American racial settlements go, the Compromise of 1977 was certainly the fairest and the most constructive in U.S. history. Under its terms, for the first time a majority of African-American families are middle class. Taking advantage of new opportunities in a host of fields, African Americans emerged as leaders; the upper ranks of the U.S. military, the legal profession, literature, journalism and the academy, too—all benefited from newly unleashed black talent. In entertainment, music and sports, where blacks had long succeeded as performers, blacks rose to the top and became not just stars but owners, coaches and moguls. Popular racial attitudes changed dramatically; race prejudice was no longer acceptable in polite society, and interracial marriage, once illegal in many states, became widespread.
Yet as relatively benign as it was, the Compromise of 1977 did not end America’s racial problem. The majority of blacks may have achieved, however precariously, a middle-class standard of living, but the large minority of blacks who did not get there found themselves trapped in an intensifying cycle of poverty, social dysfunction and despair. Conditions in many American cities deteriorated dramatically as white flight, globalization (destroying the manufacturing base of many rust belt cities), poor governance and the drug trade ravaged urban America. The heavy police presence and law enforcement crackdowns sent a growing proportion of young black men to prison. Weak family structures, absent fathers, abysmal schools and the consequences of a culture in which drug abuse and violence were widespread placed almost insuperable barriers in the way of young generations of African Americans born into the inner cities.
In some ways the City of Baltimore as depicted in The Wire is a disturbingly accurate picture of inner-city African-American life three decades into the post-civil rights era racial settlement. We see blacks represented in positions of authority in many though not all institutions; city government, the police and the schools have a particularly strong black presence. But we also see the projects, the prisons, the long-term unemployed and the hopeless. And dominating the picture is the decline in Baltimore’s economic situation: the port, the freight yards and manufacturing no longer provide steady work at middle- or lower-middle-class wages for Baltimoreans black or white. Baltimore has negotiated a careful and reasonably successful compromise that both races can live with, but the bottom has fallen out from under the city’s economy. The inner city’s social structure has imploded as a consequence, the political culture makes Tammany Hall look like Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, and thousands of young black children are growing up in a murderous and toxic—and almost totally segregated—world.
The election of President Obama marked both the definitive triumph of the 1977 racial settlement and the beginning of its end. A generation of national struggle against the spirit of race prejudice had created the closest thing to a color-blind electorate American politics had ever known. A generation of opening doors to talented blacks provided the opportunity for not just Barack Obama but a galaxy of African-American leaders in business, politics and culture to reach the summit of national life.
But the financial crisis that helped Obama win election in time devastated the black middle class and demonstrated the extent to which the core economic assumptions that shaped the new era in race relations were under threat. The housing bubble’s greatest victims were striving minorities; a combination of well-intentioned efforts to increase home ownership among low-income and minority families with unscrupulous and irresponsible Wall Street lending products left millions of Americans stuck with pricey mortgages in overvalued properties.
Worse, state and local governments were hit hard by the ensuing recession. Massive government layoffs rippled across the country as revenues fell and governments frantically slashed their budgets. Blacks are disproportionately represented among government employees, and government employment has been a mainstay of the new black middle class. The numbers are therefore revealing. Black unemployment under President Obama hit 16.2 percent (June 2011). The median net worth of black households collapsed, falling by 59 percent between 2005 and 2010, wiping out twenty years of progress and plunging to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan’s first term. By comparison, the net worth of white households only fell by 18 percent from 2005 to 2010. The gap between black and white net worth doubled during the Great Recession, and the “wealth gap” between the races rose; the median white household had 22 times the net worth of the median black household. Moreover, the damage to black prospects will not soon be repaired. Indeed, if we now (as seems likely) face a prolonged period of austerity and restructuring in government, there will be fewer job openings and stagnant or falling wages and benefits in the middle-class occupations where blacks have enjoyed the greatest success.
Politics will probably make the government jobs squeeze worse. The black middle class isn’t based so largely on government jobs because blacks aren’t entrepreneurial or because they have some natural affinity for bureaucratic paper pushing. Historically, municipal government in particular has been a major avenue for the economic advancement of different American ethnic groups. The Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Poles and many others used their voting strength in urban centers to elect politicians sympathetic to the interests of their group, and over time that turned into municipal jobs for many voters and contracts for others. The urban ethnic political machines and their traditions of patronage, wholesale electoral fraud and influence peddling often led to bad governance, but historically the system did help millions of new immigrants bootstrap themselves into the American middle class. Charlie Rangel and William Jefferson aren’t evidence of some peculiar disease of black urban politics; they are as American as Tammany Hall.
The rise of black voting power in American cities led naturally to improved access for black workers to city jobs, just as Tammany Hall once helped the Irish and other political organizations helped other groups get that first toehold on the first rung of the ladder of success. Blacks, whose Great Migration to the Northern cities came as World War I and immigration restrictions closed the door to European immigrants early in the 20th century, were (until the recent Hispanic influx) the last major group to colonize America’s great cities; it is the misfortune of black America to be establishing a middle class on the basis of government work just as the economic foundations of government are shifting.
Now, however, urban demographics are changing, and the politics of urban employment will change with it. In cities like Los Angeles, New York and even Washington, DC, black political power has begun to decline. Spanish-speaking immigrants and immigrants from Asia are exerting more power in local elections, and the patronage networks that have served blacks well in recent decades will now increasingly serve other client groups. An influx of affluent whites, who dislike machine politics and want to improve services like schools while cutting costs, puts additional pressure on the patronage networks. Add the squeeze on state and municipal government hiring together with a decline in relative black political power, and the future is not particularly hard to calculate.
But the true dimension of the dangers facing the black middle class emerges only if we look at the full range of changes taking place in the American economy. Affirmative action and other methods of improving black access to middle-class jobs work best in large, stable firms with fairly bureaucratic structures and large numbers of employees performing reasonably similar functions. The U.S. Postal Service, regulated utilities, universities, healthcare firms, mass-market manufacturers like the automobile industry and large clerical intensive firms like national insurance companies have established programs that have been successful at hiring, training and promoting minority employees in middle-class and professional jobs. The trouble is, healthcare excepted, these firms are being forced to change their ways of doing business. In some cases, like the USPS, large layoffs have already taken place: Its headcount will drop by 220,000 by 2015. Other employers are busily outsourcing or automating many of the functions that once provided stable middle-class livelihoods for large groups of workers.
Perhaps worse, new business and new industrial facilities are often built in places where not many blacks live. Some of this is to avoid the high costs and heavy regulatory burdens associated with most urban locations. It is much cheaper to set up operations in the exurbs than in the inner suburbs and inner cities where many blacks live. The heavy compliance burdens imposed by environmental, construction and other regulations on urban areas discourage startups in precisely those areas where minority unemployment is highest. There is also a troubling pattern of foreign investment going into parts of the country where fewer minorities live. I have heard from both German and Japanese sources over the years that the absence of large black populations has influenced choices about, for example, locating new factories away from the South Carolina Low Country and the Mississippi Delta. It would be hard to prove that race alone is shaping these decisions, but race has clearly been a factor in the location of some significant foreign-owned plants.
Since 1979, manufacturing employment has been declining throughout the country, but it has declined farther and faster in cities with large black populations. Between 1990 and 2011, manufacturing employment fell by 34 percent across the country; in Detroit it fell by 53 percent, in Baltimore by 52 percent, in Flint by 80 percent, and in Los Angeles by 55 percent.
One of the tragedies of black history in America is that blacks often only get to the gravy train when the locomotive is coming to the end of its run. Blacks are qualifying in large numbers for civil service pensions just as those pensions are looking shaky. Blacks have moved into professional, middle-class government employment just as state and local governments are heading over the financial cliff. In the same way, blacks came relatively late to the other pillar of 20th– century American middle class prosperity: manufacturing jobs. For the European migrants to American cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as productivity rose (and as immigration restrictions cut off the supply of low-wage competition), rising manufacturing wages and employment opened the door to mass prosperity. The children and grandchildren of immigrant factory workers would go to college, enter the professions and also build new businesses, but that factory employment gave the economic stability that underwrote the economic integration of whole waves of immigrants into the American system. Blacks, drawn to the urban North after European immigration was curtailed by World War I and the draconian restrictions passed in its aftermath, came late to the factory economy as well. Many labor unions refused to accept black apprentices into skilled trades until the 1960s. Formal and informal systems of discrimination kept blacks from competing on equal terms for many factory jobs in the North and South until well into the 1970s.
But again, many blacks got into the game just as the game was starting to change. As a percentage of the labor force, manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979. Since that time, a combination of productivity-raising technological change, global competition, the full entry of women into the labor force and the start of a new wave of mass immigration following immigration law changes in 1965 has held real wages down and reduced opportunities for struggling urban families to achieve a secure footing in the middle class.
Exacerbating these problems is the challenging nature of urban life for poor young people. Many of the waves of immigrants into American cities come from the countryside where there are strong religious and cultural patterns that help people live disciplined lives. Over time, those values and institutions lose their hold on immigrants living in new and unfamiliar urban surroundings. Youth gangs, the excitements and temptations of city life and the easy availability of demoralizing drugs, from alcohol to the many stimulants available today, threaten the ability of new urban generations to acquire the habits and skills that make success possible. Religious institutions, schools and social initiatives like Jane Addams’ Hull House have for many generations been fighting the forces of personal and social disorganization that take a great toll in each rising generation of poor urban young people, whether we are thinking about Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles or blacks. And the longer a population remains trapped in urban poverty, the deeper the damage to new generations.
Over the past two centuries, the question of race in America has been indissolubly linked to the general social and economic development of the country. That is not surprising; blacks and whites live and work in the same economy and the same forces act on their lives. But race and the history of race have meant that these forces play out in different ways. Just as past compromises going back to 1787 were based on the political economy of the day, the Compromise of 1977 reflected the nature of American economic and political life at that time. The United States was then still in the late heyday of the “blue social model.” Stable corporate oligopolies provided lifetime employment for both blue- and white-collar workers. Both public and private entities were bureaucratically organized with large clerical staffs dedicated to relatively low-skilled information processing. Employment in government and in the academy was rapidly expanding, and real wages had been rising for a generation. Manufacturing employment was high and presumably headed higher. The Compromise of 1977 was predicated on the assumption that these conditions would endure; they have not, and race relations must once again be rethought.
As Americans ponder how to build a prosperous and equitable post-industrial society, the question of race must be on the table. The racial policies reflected in the Compromise of 1977 do not suffice today. For much of the 20th century, the core problem facing black America was one of access. If blacks could get into the building and manufacturing unions on equal terms, they could build middle-class lives. If blacks could gain access to civil service and municipal jobs on the same terms as whites, they could enjoy a rising middle-class standard of living. If blacks could gain access to credentialing institutions like colleges, they could move into white collar and professional jobs—again, if they could compete on equal terms.
In the 21st century, access has not disappeared as an issue. Poor black kids in a chaotic, crime-ridden neighborhood with no option but to attend lousy schools can hardly be said to enjoy equal access to the opportunities of American life. But for the growing number of middle-class blacks, the problem today is less one of access than it is that the social model on which the progress of the past half-century depended is disintegrating. It’s no good having equal access to factory jobs if those jobs are disappearing. It’s no good having equal access to municipal government jobs if the city is laying off rather than hiring, and if wages and benefits for the jobs that remain are being cut. It’s no good having a pipeline into the healthcare sector if that sector faces an immense financial crisis and is skidding along on an unsustainable path. For blacks, as for all Americans, the central problem today isn’t how to get access to blue model jobs. It’s what to do next. This is not a racial problem, of course, but given the special circumstances and unique history of black America, those who want to get past blue are going to have to reckon with black. And in the reckoning we must recognize that we have no guarantees that the generally positive trajectory of the past half-century in race relations will persist if the underlying supports for it in the political economy fall away. That will surely affect the contours of the next great compromise, whenever it forms and whatever its terms.