A call to action is the focus of part two in a three-part series on our Unmade in America report.
Editor's note: The Alliance for American Manufacturing recently unveiled a new report, Unmade in America: Industrial Flight and the Decline of Black Communities. Written by research fellow Gerald Taylor, the report makes the case that while all manufacturing communities suffered because of major job losses starting in the 1970s, Black workers were disproportionately hurt. In the essay below — the second in a series of three blog posts — Taylor outlines things to keep in mind when finding ways to help Black communities hurt by industrial flight. You can read the first post here.
Deindustrialization has had a profoundly negative impact on America’s manufacturing workers — especially America’s Black workers — and has devastated communities across the nation. A few points are worth bearing in mind as conversations regarding ways to mitigate, nullify, and even reverse this impact.
The first is that deindustrialization of the scope and scale that has occurred in the United States is not, as some have supposed, simply a downstream effect of economic or technological maturation. Indeed, advanced industrial economies like those found in Germany and Japan have not experienced anything even slightly resembling the precipitous decline of American manufacturing, despite exposure to the same prevailing economic realities. Rather, deindustrialization in the U.S. has been the result of a series of willful political and economic decisions, including decisions to outsource assembly line jobs, the implementation of unjust housing practices, and free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Even the infamous ‘war on drugs’, the unquestionable legacy of which has been the mass incarceration of people of color, played a very direct role in the ruination of cities that were once among America’s proudest and most productive.
Deindustrialization thus presents two interrelated sets of challenges. On the one hand, the challenges are economic in nature, as the country is forced to contend with a severely underutilized workforce, rapidly contracting manufacturing employment, and burgeoning trade deficits. For many reasons, allowing deindustrialization to continue unaddressed is simply bad for business.
But the challenges are also moral in nature. America’s manufacturing workers have not only been economically disadvantaged by deindustrialization, but they have also been wronged by it. Many have been deprived of the opportunity to enjoy livable wages, satisfactory housing, adequate health care, and stability and comfort for themselves and their families—these are the things that all workers deserve.
Indeed, as has often been the case in American history, Black Americans are akin to the proverbial canary in the coal mine — though they are often both the first and the most mercilessly afflicted by socioeconomic and political problems, their suffering indicates that all Americans are at risk of calamity if those problems go unaddressed.
This moral dimension is especially easy to see when it comes to Black workers and their families, who have felt the force of deindustrialization with disproportionate intensity. The lifeblood of this disappointing reality has been, at least partly, the racial discrimination, tension, and bias that have marred America’s history ever since its inception. Of course, simply acknowledging this fact would constitute a much-needed first step toward social, economic, and racial justice in the U.S. But as a well-known piece of legal wisdom says, justice too long delayed is justice denied. And what black workers, families, and communities need — indeed, what justice requires — is actual, effective action aimed at following through on that acknowledgment.
Working people are not just droplets in an ocean of productivity, and they are not just cogs in a vast economic machine. They are human beings with the right to have their basic needs met. And moving forward, it will be important for legislators, policymakers, and corporate leaders not only to recognize this fact, but also to take it seriously and allow it to inform their future decisions.
Finally, though the discussion thus far has focused on the particular challenges that Black Americans have faced in the wake of deindustrialization, it is important to emphasize that the struggle against the continued decline of American manufacturing is a collective one. Indeed, as has often been the case in American history, Black Americans are akin to the proverbial canary in the coal mine—though they are often both the first and the most mercilessly afflicted by socioeconomic and political problems, their suffering indicates that all Americans are at risk of calamity if those problems go unaddressed.
Any attempts to address deindustrialization and its associated effects must reflect a commitment to improving the lives of all workers. Of course, few would deny this obvious suggestion—yet manufacturing workers, and Black workers more than most, are consistently left behind, unable to improve their lots even as America’s overall wealth and productivity continues to grow. And any solution that threatens once again to exclude them is no real solution at all.