Our system rests on a legacy of exploitation. We can do better.
In the midst of Black History Month, it’s a particularly important time to reflect on the historical contributions of Black workers–perhaps more important than ever in the present context of the global pandemic. Indeed, while the pandemic has taught us much about what we need to “fix” within our country, one of the clearest moral failings that has come to light is the continued existence of extreme racial disparities, which largely disadvantage Black Americans. This is evidenced most clearly by the fact that COVID-19 infections and pandemic-related job losses have hit Black and brown communities hardest, and that these populations make up a disproportionate percentage of essential workers. (Economic Policy Institute)
The revelation that Black communities are facing extreme health disparities and economic inequality while white Americans continue to profit off of their labor is not news to many of us. Our country has long taken advantage of Black labor, rising to economic prominence because of capitalist exploitation. In this article, we’ll explore Black labor in the context of slavery-era America and within the labor movement in order to more clearly see the critical role that Black Americans continue to play in America’s success story, even as the very system they’ve helped build continues to disadvantage them.
The Dark Origins of Capitalism in the U.S.
Our country’s dark legacy of slavery and its connection to modern capitalism is perhaps the clearest indication that America’s economic prosperity has rested on the backs of Black labor since its founding. In fact, our modern capitalist system in many ways benefited from, and was shaped by, the institution of slavery.
In the first half of the 19th century, cotton grown by slaves constituted more than half of our nation’s exports. While history paints a picture of slavery as a strictly “Southern institution,” the reality is that slavery “proved indispensable to national economic development.” (Forbes) Southern plantation owners grew rich from the production of raw materials, while cotton grown on plantations supplied Northeastern textile mills, and Northern bankers increased their wealth by financing plantations. More broadly, the United States’ “cotton empire” ensured it would remain a key–and successful–player in the Industrial Revolution, while the cotton trade formed an interconnected international economy that laid the foundation of our modern capitalist system. (Forbes, PBS)
With the institution of slavery, the notion of maximizing profits grew increasingly popular by emphasizing maximum productivity out of every worker–often by punishing slaves who were “underperforming” or rebelled. In fact, the plantation-era culture of maximizing profits and increasing wealth at all costs, “abusing the powerless,” undoubtedly defines modern capitalism: the pursuit of profits by any means and at the expense of workers’ rights, unionization efforts, and ensuring fair wages, all of which have led to soaring inequality and contributed to the ever-widening Black-white wealth gap. (The New York Times Magazine)
Plantations also laid the foundation for the modern corporate-capitalist workplace. Plantations’ complex hierarchies of workers, overseers, and bookkeepers with meticulous record-keeping to track output and productivity, as well as constant surveillance of enslaved workers, constituted an organizational structure that was “advanced for its time” and in some ways rival modern-day workplace hierarchies. While the cruelty and violent treatment endured by enslaved workers has been outlawed, modern surveillance tactics in the workplace, including software to track workers’ keyboard, emails, and mouse clicks, have taken its place to ensure employees are producing maximum output for their employers. (The New York Times Magazine)
At the cruel expense of Black genocide and exploitation, slavery set the foundation for America’s prosperous economic future and shaped certain practices and attitudes of modern capitalism that benefit corporations’ bottom lines–but continue to oppress workers.
Black Labor & Unionization
Yet another way our capitalist system has benefited from Black labor is through Black workers’ efforts on factory lines, which propelled American manufacturing forward throughout the majority of the 20th century. Black labor unions have also been indispensable to American “success,” both in boosting productivity overall and in ensuring higher wages and improved standards of living for middle and working class workers of all races.
Leading up to World War I, many Blacks, including sharecroppers and former slaves, began migrating North. With the country entrenched in war and ammunition production ramping up, many Blacks found work in Northern factories, such as those in the automobile industry. Eventually, Black trade unions would be formed, viewed by leaders like W.E.B. Dubois and Frederick Douglass as “essential to the ability of Black workers to rise and achieve equality.” (“A Brief History of Labor, Race, and Solidarity”)
While many unions opposed integration for several decades, unions began integrating in the 1950s and 60s; perhaps most notably, the merging of the AFL and CIO in 1955 brought together an integrated union of Blacks and non-Blacks, using its influence to link the labor movement and the Civil Rights-era fight for racial equality. Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized this link, touting unions as a beacon of “higher wages and economic opportunity.” (“A Brief History of Labor, Race, and Solidarity”)
Indeed, unions offered exactly that: Black union workers benefited from increased real wages and a union wage premium, and by 1973, 40% of Black men were members of a union. (Urban Institute) By 1970, Blacks had become a “sizeable force” in the auto industry, represented by the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) and labor unions more broadly. (NY Daily News) Economic productivity between 1948 and 1979, meanwhile, had grown by 108 percent, with compensation growing by 93.2 percent. (Economic Policy Institute)
Yet Black union workers were not the only beneficiaries of their organizing efforts. The post-war era had ushered in a period of prosperity, increased wages for all workers, and reduced inequality, largely due to the rise of unionization. Along with these perks came better benefits for workers, including employer-sponsored healthcare, paid vacation time, and retirement benefits. (The New York Times) Black unions also played an important role in the Civil Rights movement, championing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s to combat workplace discrimination, setting an important precedent and leading the way for future workplace anti-discrimination legislation and the elimination of unfair voting restrictions. (“African-American’s Rights”) Undoubtedly, Black workers’ contributions to wartime and post-war production and labor movement organizing efforts were instrumental in America’s continued prosperity, and set a critical precedent for current fights for fairer wages, increased workplace protections, and improved standards of living for workers.
Our Unequal Reality Today
Despite Black workers’ essential contributions to America’s “success” story, Black populations continue to face extreme inequalities today. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Black and brown communities have not only had significantly higher rates of death from the virus, but have also faced higher rates of pandemic-related job loss and make up a disproportionate percentage of essential workers, thus being more likely to come in contact with the virus. (Economic Policy Institute) Despite representing such a large proportion of the essential workforce, non-healthcare essential workers still risk their lives daily while vaccines remain unavailable to them in a majority of states, and nonwhite Americans continue to receive vaccines in fewer numbers than white Americans. (The Hill)
Our love for unbridled capitalism, rooted in slavery, continues to disadvantage Black Americans by stifling unionization and keeping wages low, both of which are shown to contribute to the Black-white wealth gap. So how do we overcome this? First, we must shed inane notions that capitalism in America is color-blind, and that every American can be successfully wealthy through hard work alone. Decades of neoliberal policies that favor the wealthiest white Americans have ensured that participating in the American dream is all but impossible for many.
Further, we must work towards a future with universal healthcare, a future in which the wealthiest Americans and corporations pay a fair share of taxes. Increasing the minimum wage to $15 is certainly a good start, but policies to reconnect productivity gains with workers’ wages would go a step further in ensuring workers are paid fairly. (Economic Policy Institute)
This Black History Month, let us not only commit ourselves to learning about the past exploitation and injustices faced by Black Americans in our country. Let us also take a look at the legacy systems that continue to profit off poverty-wage Black and brown labor and perpetuate the economic inequality between Blacks and whites today. And let us challenge ourselves to change those systems and finally put the dignity of people of color above excessive white profits at all costs.