Valuing and Championing African American Workers Is Long Overdue

By Cameron Johnson

African American workers and their labor built the United States of America. From their foundational labor in agriculture and infrastructure under the compulsion of chattel slavery to their subsequent forging of American industry in the face of segregation, Black workers have generated immense wealth for the nation over the past few centuries.

Despite this, an uninterrupted through line in the country’s history is the failure to rightly value African American workers’ labor – a consequence of persistent anti-Black racism. Failing to properly acknowledge the massive wealth that Black workers have generated for this nation not only further compromises the country’s moral standing. It also denies the further economic success and prosperity that would benefit all Americans–particularly African Americans, who deserve to reap the fruits of their hard work. We can begin a long-overdue championing of Black people broadly by recognizing disparities and systemic barriers Black workers struggle against today and identifying bold policy solutions.

How Black Workers Get Misvalued

Stark racial disparities in labor demonstrate how the widespread racism Black Americans face has real consequences for their employment prospects. In January 2022 the unemployment rate for African Americans was 6.9 percent, compared to 4 percent nationally and 3.4 percent for white Americans. This mirrors the historic trend of the unemployment rate for African Americans as around two times higher that of both white Americans and the country as a whole (as the chart below illustrates).

Even after finding employment, challenges persist. Black workers with a college degree are more likely than their white peers to be underemployed, or in an occupation that does not make full use of their skills and abilities. In 2020, Black men’s wages were only 70.1 percent of those of white men, while Black women’s wages were only 63.6 percent (see the following chart). For Black men, the wage disparity becomes more pronounced when considering additional factors that disproportionately impact Black workers: dropping out of the labor force altogether and being incarcerated.

The consequences of these disparities are significant for Black people and their families. In 2020, almost one in five Black people in the United States lived below the poverty line (below). White households in the same year had about a 63 percent higher median household income than Black households (also below). For African Americans, unemployment and underemployment means serious economic opportunities lost: earning higher incomes, building potential wealth, and maintaining family security and stability. At worst, it leaves many facing economic precarity.

For the United States as a whole, the cost is in the trillions of dollars. One analysis holds that the wage gaps between Black workers and white men have cost the nation around $2.7 trillion dollars that could have gone to our overall gross domestic product (GDP) over the last 20 years. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco estimated that all racial and gender disparities in labor market opportunities and outcomes have cost the U.S. economy $2.6 trillion in potential GDP in 2019 alone. Disparities faced solely by Black workers account for $540 billion of that total. Looking toward the future, an additional analysis finds that closing racial gaps for Black Americans in wages, education, housing, and investment could add $5 trillion to the country’s GDP by 2025.

If exploiting African Americans and their labor is a peculiar motif embedded into American history, it should be no surprise that misvaluing and thereby squandering their contributions is as similarly ingrained a pattern. The Great Migration, the early and mid-20th century movement of Black Americans out of the South to the North and beyond, demonstrates both those patterns at work. First and foremost, the Great Migration was precipitated by a desire to escape the toil and tyranny of the South. Yet it also involved a pursuit of greater opportunity – Black people knowing the value of their labor and moving to where it would be better appreciated. Indeed, longitudinal data from 1880-1990 demonstrate that Black Americans who migrated from the South – many from rural areas – had high levels of educational attainment, and those who had such educational attainment were more likely to leave. This amounted to a Black “brain drain” out of the rural South, part of a wider phenomenon widely recognized as fostering economic precarity in the region that continues to this day.

I know this phenomenon well because I’m a product of it. My father, along with many of his siblings, left rural Mississippi and the twilight of Jim Crow as young adults to pursue greater work and educational opportunities in the Northeast and Midwest. Many never came back, other than briefly visiting for a family reunion, wedding, or funeral. Those who did return moved from rural areas to areas more populated or with a college or university. As a result, my siblings and I were raised in the mid-Atlantic; we went to school, work, and still live in the Northeast. The region that wanted nothing to do with my family’s humanity now has nothing to do with our productivity, taxes, and disposable income. These circumstances are true for many Black Americans of all stripes, and the South absorbs a tremendous opportunity cost because of it.

Despite the necessity of recognizing and reversing disparities that Black workers endure, it should be stated explicitly that the worth of Black labor is distinct from the worth of Black people. The results of the efforts of African American workers throughout American history are undoubtedly remarkable; that the true value of those efforts has been squandered by the United States in its bouts of exploitation is ironic at best, shameful at worst. However, the value of African Americans as people derive not from their contributions to our country’s GDP but from their humanity. The grave injustice committed is not the inefficient management of labor outputs but the impact and legacy of human bondage, apartheid, and persistent social stratification.

We need bold policy not only to acknowledge the work of America’s Black labor force but also to begin to address and reconcile historic and persistent failures to honor the humanity of Black people broadly. Black workers need policies that improve job quality, ensure family-sustaining wages and benefits, and realize pathways to fulfilling careers with opportunities for advancement.

Congress’s priorities must include boosting the federal minimum wage, increasing training and workforce development, canceling student debt, promoting quality apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, funding subsidized employment programs, increasing the maximum federal Pell grant, increasing funding for HBCUs, and offering paid leave. The promise of greater economic opportunity for African Americans is clear. The United States would be prudent to see it achieved.