The Role that Racial Equity and Economic Sustainability Should Play in Manufacturing

By Lauren Ban
Jun 28 2021 |

The Century Foundation, Groundwork Collaborative, and Urban Manufacturing Alliance held an event last week to examine the role of trade and manufacturing in racial justice.

When I say infrastructure, what do you think of? Sure, there is the traditional stuff like roads, bridges, ports and waterways, but what about the human element? What about the manufacturing jobs behind the infrastructure projects? What about childcare to ensure those workers can go to work in the first place? What about ensuring the benefits of those jobs go to the communities that need them most and not somewhere overseas?  

These are the questions that The Century Foundation, Groundwork Collaborative, and Urban Manufacturing Alliance sought to answer at their conference on Thursday, titled “What Do Trade and Manufacturing Have to Do with Racial Justice?”  

The conference featured a series of expert panels and keynote speeches from notable appearances like House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), and Darrick Hamilton, a professor at the Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy and founding director of the Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification and Political Economy at The New School.  

The conference took place the same day President Biden reached an agreement on an infrastructure package with a bipartisan group of senators. With this as the backdrop, the conference focused on drawing attention to the fact that trade and manufacturing policies offer this country a chance to finally address racial justice. There seemed to be a consensus among panelists and keynote speakers – you cannot address one without addressing the other.  

Historically, manufacturing has been the main driver behind economic mobility, especially among Black communities.  

“It was the availability of better paying manufacturing jobs…that was a major factor in the Great Migration,” noted Valerie Wilson, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, Economic Policy Institute. “These jobs were also important to narrowing racial disparities in the Midwest, in particular.” 

By providing BIPOC with higher pay, better benefits, and relative job security, the manufacturing sector helped to develop towns across the country. Manufacturing was the lifeblood of many American communities, explained Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.  

In the 1980s, however, trade and manufacturing policy shifted to a more neoliberal position, meaning greater deregulation, lower trade barriers, and privatization. As jobs shipped overseas and American factories shut down, entire communities were knocked out. As our 2016 report Unmade in America found, this had a profoundly disproportionate impact on Black communities – an impact which is still felt across the country today.  

“Without a plan,” warned Sandra Polaski, a senior research scholar at Boston University, “the U.S. will drift back to a harsh, unequal, discriminatory and unstable economy that had been building for years and reached historically precarious levels during the Trump administration.”  

For that reason, speakers at Thursday’s event emphasized the importance of addressing racial inequities and the sustainability of our economy through trade and manufacturing.  

“We can’t return to the economy we had before the pandemic. Instead, we have to make bold and large investments that shift our economy so that we can actually start growing from the bottom-up and middle-out.” said Sameera Fazili, deputy director of the White House National Economic Council. 

It is true. While the infrastructure deal reached on Thursday is a step in the right direction, there are still problem areas that need to be addressed. For example, the deal falls short of the climate and equity goals which were originally announced under Biden’s American Jobs Plan, as well as Buy America language to guarantee Americans reap the benefits of the deal.  

Luckily, conference speakers offered policy solutions to address some of these problems.  

“If we’re really committed to fighting climate change,” said Sameera Fazili on transitioning to climate-friendly manufacturing, “we need to pay for a just transition. We need to pay workers to take jobs, lesser-paying green jobs, in exchange for higher-paying fossil fuel jobs.”  

Darrick Hamilton agreed: “A worker-focused industry with direct public hiring, would ensure, not only net-new jobs, but net-new quality jobs. These jobs can be used to rebuild our public physical health and human infrastructure, green our economy, and create a care economy for all Americans.”  

Speakers also made sure to address the elephant in the room — the so-called “skills gap” — and repeatedly pushed back against the claim that training is the sole answer to all of our manufacturing problems.  

“We have to stop saying we need to solve the problem of a skills gap, but rather the gap in our preparation and placement systems,” Stettner said. He argued that by offering “more inclusive practices…more pathways to entry level jobs for families, and… ownership of companies,” many issues could be addressed.  

Clearly, there is work to be done.  

The question now is: “How do we retain optimism in the face of such an extraordinary challenge?” For Elmer Moore, executive director of Scale Up Milwaukee and facilitator of Thursday’s event, the answer is to have “moments like this where we hear that the best and brightest minds of our country are actively committing to dismantling the institutional racism and structures.” 

“Democracy is a contact sport. It takes participation,” said Héctor Huezo of Jobs to Move America. “And as a result of folks getting in the street and organizing, we’ve been in a position to demand this kind of investment with a focus on racial justice and good jobs.”

Moving forward, we need to examine trade and manufacturing policies to ensure our economic future is not only sustainable, but equitable as well.  

“A lot of pockets have been left unattended to,” Clyburn said. “We’re working real hard to make sure that we do not make the mistakes that came after the Great Depression…and 2009.”