How industrial flight is reflected in the crises America is facing today.
Editor's note: This piece originally was published on Medium.
Silence is not a solution to what is happening in our country right now.
The brutal extrajudicial murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has forced the country to reckon with difficult social, economic, health, and justice issues. Our response is playing out in real time on America’s streets, on the news, and in our social media feeds. All of us must devote more time, more thought, and more energy toward acknowledging injustices and moving toward solutions. We are citizens, voters, neighbors, families, and friends. In each of our roles, we can and should be part of the solution.
Here at the Alliance for American Manufacturing, we’ve reported on the role that a combination of discrimination and deindustrialization have played in fueling social and economic suffering in the Black community. We are committed to continuing that work, and to the notion that we are one nation, black, white and brown; red, white and blue.
I write these words from a seat of profound privilege. I have never been redlined, targeted by the police, faced discrimination, or denied opportunity based on my race. In 2017, I used my voice and privilege to resign from the Trump administration’s manufacturing council to protest the president’s unacceptable response to the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville, Va., and caused the death of an innocent woman.
And I’m committed to listening, learning, and acting today. It’s simply impossible for me to ever personally know the kind of despair the Black community has faced in America for generations. But I am actively working to listen, and have turned the words of Killer Mike and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the aspirations of Rep. John Lewis, and the valuable interpretations of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We all come to this moment from different walks of life, but we must work together for a common purpose. At AAM, our mission every day is to give a voice and support to all of America’s working class, and to give the makers of the future a fighting chance as well.
For the past few years, we’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time in nearly every corner of America, in cities big and small, listening to our diverse working class about their lives, their communities, their hopes and their dreams.
Manufacturing workers of all backgrounds faced hardships because of offshoring and the incredible loss of factory jobs in recent decades. But Black workers suffered the most.
While Black working class Americans experienced generations of discrimination and hard ceilings, in the mid-20th century, manufacturing offered an opportunity to earn a good wage and begin to build wealth. Black factory workers bought houses. Thriving Black communities in cities like St. Louis, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and Youngstown, Ohio emerged.
Then the factories began to shut down, and these communities were left gutted. Trapped in place by redlining and discrimination, industrial flight had a devastating and disproportionate impact on Black workers. They weren’t able to find new jobs as quickly as their white counterparts. They didn’t have as much savings or other support to fall back on. They didn’t have the network or resources to move to a new city for new opportunities.
Deindustrialization began in the late 20th century, but the story continues to play out today. When a factory moves out, wages go down in town. Many people stay in these communities, drawn by culture, trapped by discrimination, or squeezed by underwater mortgages. But without the revenue generated by the factory — along with factory workers eating at local restaurants, shopping at local stores, donating to local charities — everyone suffers.
When times are bad, the social fabric of the community is ripped apart when it can least afford it.
This shock has been felt in thousands of towns across America, and particularly in the Industrial Heartland. Add onto this social discrimination, incidents of violent police brutality, and extrajudicial killing of black men and women, and one can quickly understand why words like “vote” seem to many activists to be not nearly enough.
Which brings us to this moment. From our public policy perch, we will be asking our policymakers if they have done enough. Have they respected the dignity of all work, as Dr. King suggests? Have they done everything to keep factories open? Have they valued and respected workers?
The social and economic fabrics of our nation, and of distressed communities, are interwoven. One cannot be strong without another. Here are some of the ways in which we can strengthen those bonds:
- I believe we must rebuild our nation, with steel poured from our mills, made into bridges and rails and wind turbines and progress.
- I believe we must reimagine our trade deals to make them work for our working class. We owe our hard-working men and women a better deal on trade.
- I believe we must revalue career and technical education to create more pathways for our young people who want to work with their hands as well as their minds, for they will be making our future.
- I believe we must resist the dog whistles. Immigrants didn’t steal our jobs. Foreign workers didn’t either, although some authoritarian governments like China deserve scrutiny. But corporations who shipped our jobs overseas must be held to account. And the politicians who enabled them must face accountability as well.
- And I believe we must rediscover and reconnect with our working class. It’s been a long time coming.
Even in this age of unrest, pandemics, automation, globalization, and technology, there are reasons to be optimistic. As a nation, we believe in hard work. We have an unrivaled entrepreneurial culture.
What we need is the proper outlook, sound leadership, and accountability. The amazing things of the future are going to be made somewhere. Let’s make them here.
This alone won’t bring swift justice for the murders Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, or so many others. There’s so much work to do to finally put an end to the systemic racism that has led to such pain.
But I believe that a renewed focus on building a better future for America’s working class is one part of the process. Remember, we are in this together.