African American Workers Built America
“African American and Hispanic American workers on strike against Kellwood, wearing placards that encourage support for better wages.” International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs. Photo credit: Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives. Cornell University ILR.
By Asha Banerjee and Cameron Johnson
Black labor has been foundational to the growth of America and our economy. Enslaved people built the country’s early infrastructure and produced lucrative commodities such as cotton and tobacco. After emancipation, African American labor was crucial in industry, agriculture, and service. Yet the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which was established in 1884, only started gathering consistent data on African American workers in 1972. For nearly a century, African American workers did not appear even as data points let alone in meaningful policies or labor legislation.
This Black History Month, we celebrate Black workers, their achievements, and their dedication to work (a trait often attributed to white workers). We also must consider the steep challenges and structural inequities Black workers continue to face. Understanding that history contextualizes today’s fight to improve and expand African Americans’ access to higher paying jobs and economic success.
Black workers have endured a long history of discrimination, including restrictions from unions. Companies used Black workers as strike breakers to misdirect white workers’ anger and frustration. New Deal programs excluded Black agricultural and domestic workers. And 1930s “progressive” public benefits legislation such as the Social Security Act was actually pro-white legislation that neglects Black workers, especially women.
Historically, African Americans—especially women—have propped up the labor market, despite discrimination and hostility. As far back as 1870, 50 percent of Black women were in the labor force compared to just 16.5 percent of white women. Therefore, the famous wave of women entering the workforce in the 1970s applied only to white women. Black women who’ve always worked have been invisible to policymakers.
Black workers’ high labor force participation has propelled American economic growth, often at extremely low pay. As the 1619 Project documents, Black slaves enduring brutal conditions for two centuries in Southern plantation and Northern industries to build the booming American economy. In the early 1900s, over one million African Americans joined the “Great Migration” to fill jobs in the steel, automobile, shipbuilding, and other heavy industries. W.E.B. DuBois described this pivotal moment of American capitalism: The giant forces of water and of steam were harnessed to do the world’s work, and the black workers of America bent at the bottom of a growing pyramid of commerce and industry. White employers underpaid and segregated Black workers, subjecting them to discrimination and hostility. We must recognize their labor—whether caring for children or turning out machines in a factory—as important parts of America’s growth.
So where are we today? Black workers make up a larger part of the workforce and face record-low unemployment. Yet this is not the whole story. Black workers still face persistent employment barriers. Over the last decades, many jobs have moved away from metropolitan areas to suburbs and exurbs that are inaccessible to Black workers. The racially segregated parts of the city where Black workers live offer severely limited employment options.
Racial disparities persist. Black graduates are nearly 10 percentage points likelier to be employed in an occupation not requiring a college degree than their white peers. Staggering numbers of African American workers experience workplace discrimination, and Black women are less likely to be promoted than men or other women. This leads to troubling outcomes: In 2017, Black men's wages were 69.7 percent of white men's, while Black women's wages were 60.8 percent. Despite broad historical gains in labor force participation and educational attainment, our country still has a long way to go.
Black workers have also been at the forefront of resistance, agency, change, and solidarity with other workers. While history books and the BLS may not have covered these events, African Americans have led countless powerful moments of labor activism: the 1881 Atlanta Washerwomen Strike, the 1955-6 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the 2019 UAW General Motors strike.
As policymakers, advocates, and workers rally for a more inclusive and accessible workplace, we must recognize the immense structural discrimination and barriers that Black workers face. At the same time, we celebrate the deep contributions of Black workers to the foundation of America, its infrastructure and economy—from the first enslaved Africans to those workers and activists fighting for positive change today.