It Happens
It Happens

By Linda Burnham

     Perhaps we don't need the Wall Street Journal to
confirm what we already know: that corporate America's
discriminatory treatment of African Americans runs
astoundingly deep. Still, it's nice to have the facts in
     WSJ conducted a computer analysis of the EEOC reports
of 35,242 companies which employ 40 million workers -- more
than a third of the total U.S. workforce. Their findings
were reported in a lengthy article in the September 15, 1993
edition of the paper. The results of the analysis were
summarized as follows: "Blacks were the only racial group to
suffer a net job loss during the 1990-91 economic downturn,
at the companies reporting to the Equal Economic Opportunity
Commission. Whites, Hispanics and Asians, meanwhile, gained
thousands of jobs...."
     There are certain aphorisms in the field of race
relations that are so overused, they are well past the point
of clich‚ It's boring to read them and usually a sign of
laziness to use them. "The problem of the 20th century is
the problem of the color line," is one of them; "a recession
in white America means a depression for Blacks" is another;
and "last hired, first fired" is yet another. But the
obvious reason that these phrases won't go away, despite
being undeniable shopworn, is that reality consistently
confirms their accuracy. The latest recession, like those
before it, did exacerbate the deterioration in African
American job prospects.
     The WSJ analysis contains some revealing, and damning,
     While Blacks at the companies surveyed suffered a net
loss of 59,479 jobs, all other groups gained, whites by
71,144, Asians by 55,104, and Latinos by 60,040. Black job
loss resulted from both losing a disproportionately high
share of jobs that were cut and gaining a disproportionately
low share of new positions added. Can't win for losing, as
it were.
     While businesses added 53,548 new service workers and
63,000 new sales jobs, African Americans experienced a net
loss of jobs in both service and sales, the only group to do
     In Florida, Blacks lost jobs at five times the rate of
the overall workforce reduction. In Illinois Blacks lost
43.4 percent of the jobs while representing 13.4 percent of
the state's workers. There's more, much more  But you
probably get the drift.

     WSJ asked many of the companies surveyed why Black job
loss was so disproportionate. The answers were on a par with
"shit happens." According to corporate spokesmen, Black job
loss was not the result of discrimination in hiring and
layoffs, but rather the unintended result of decisions to
restructure, relocate and downsize in a recessionary economy
-- decisions that were based not on the color line, but on
the bottom line of corporate profits. Sears closed down
inner city distribution centers and moved to the suburbs in
order to take advantage of more convenient trucking routes.
General Electric stopped production in two plants, one of
which happened to be 39 percent Black, the other 80 percent.
     WSJ summarizes the impact of such decisions in a model
of understatement: "Corporations' continuing decisions to
abandon inner-city offices, factories or franchise outlets
didn't help Blacks, either." It would be too much, I guess,
to expect a straightforward headline admitting "Corporate
Policies Sabotage Black Job Prospects."
     For those of us who are not prepared to accept the
corporate "shit happens" shrug, there are at least two
different ways to absorb this data. First, we may take it as
a confirmation that race if a key factor in the decisions
businesses make about restructuring and relocating, whether
it is addressed explicitly or not. It really just overtaxes
our credulity to believe that all those moves from inner
city to suburb and from Philly to Phoenix were not motivated
by a desire to lighten up the labor force.
     A social scientist has estimated that white residential
flight is triggered when a neighborhood becomes 8 percent
Black. It is not at all far-fetched to assume that there is
also some corporate trigger point for the economic
abandonment of plants and offices with substantial numbers
of Black workers. Just as fleeing homeowners will insist
that their only concern is with property values, so too will
businesses euphemistically render their flight to the burbs
as a balance sheet relocation decision. In both cases, race
is the unuttered foreground consideration.
     A second, equally valid, way to look at the data is
this: intent to discriminate is irrelevant. WSJ's data
conclusively show conclusively that U.S. corporations manage
to discriminate quite handily, despite whatever they imagine
to be their best intentions. And wasn't this the point of
affirmative action?  Business as usual means discrimination
as usual. Racial inequality is so structured into the U.S.
workforce that unless special measures are taken to minimize
its effects, it will automatically ramify. Yet affirmative
action in hiring and promotion remains an matter of bitter
contention and affirmative action in layoffs is near heresy.
     Additionally, WSJ's data directly contradict the
fashionable notion that Blacks suffer not from
discrimination, but from their own exaggerated psychological
sense of victimization. Excuse me, but a layoff rate that is
five times that of the overall workforce, as it was in
Florida, is hardly a psychological problem.
     A related point: We have heard a lot during these past
years about the pervasive inner city culture of poverty,
which allegedly prevents African Americans from developing a
stable relationship to the job market. Whose cultural
problem is it when Blacks jobs are eliminated even in sales
and service, traditionally the bottom end of the job market?
     Discrimination that disproportionately affects Blacks
is hidden in reporting to the EEOC which combines statistics
for Blacks, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans. Companies
can (and do) claim that minority hiring is up, while African
Americans are in reality shouldering an unfair share of the
recession's hardships.
     No, we might not have needed the Wall Street Journal to
raise all these issues anew. But then, when the voice of
corporate America speaks, sometimes it's worth listening.
     Linda Burnham is an editor of CrossRoads and director
of the Women of Color Resource Center. This article
originally appeared in Race File, a publication of the
Applied Research Center. This new column, "Fight the Power,"
will appear periodically in upcoming issues of CrossRoads.