The Structural Racism Herman Cain Ignores Our Color-Coded Economy

Isaiah J. Poole

Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain’s comment a couple of weeks ago that “I don’t believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way” didn’t cause much of a national stir when he made it. Why would it, when a mixed-race African American is currently the president of the United States and Cain is now considered the frontrunner to win the Republican nomination to dislodge him?

It should have caused a stir because Cain, as do most conservatives, chooses only to focus on individual acts of discrimination while ignoring the cumulative effects of structural racism—discriminatory practices that have ripple effects through the economic fortunes of African Americans long after they have been officially outlawed.

Such effects are the subject of a report released today by the Center for Social Inclusion, a New York City-based think tank, that asserts that Jim Crow is in fact alive and well in today’s job market:

As we know, Jim Crow was a system that relegated Black Americans to second-class citizenry, segregated their participation in social, civic, and economic life, and hindered access to education and prosperity. Today, Jim Crow exists in the job market as more Black and Latino workers are cast as second-class workers: over-represented in low-skill, low-wage occupations with limited chances to move up the ladder of opportunity.

The report goes on to say that “the extension of a two-track economic system is starkly color-coded, where high-skilled positions are often filled by White workers and low-skilled jobs are occupied primarily by people of color.”

Here’s what that two-track system looks like, according to the report: Of the 30 largest-growing occupations in today’s economy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, white people are represented in the six highest-paid occupations at a rate that is five to 12 percentage points greater than their presence in the general population. On the other hand, in the seven lowest-paid occupations on that list, black people are represented at a rate that is 11 to 25 percentage points greater than their presence in the general population.

Add gender to the analysis and the result is a picture in which white males appear to dominate the most lucrative occupations and black females are disproportionately represented in the lowest-paid jobs.

The annual salaries of the six lowest-paid jobs on the list of fastest-growing occupations is below the federal poverty line for a family of four, currently $22,350. Tolerating a circumstance in which people of color are disproportionately concentrated in jobs with low salaries and, frequently, no benefits means the country will continue to move backwards in terms of race and the wealth gap.

“Currently, the net-worth of White households is over $100,000 compared Blacks and Latinos, and over $40,000 compared to Asian households,” the report notes. “Wealth is often accrued through homeownership, but also through benefits from work such as matching 401Ks, pensions, or stocks and equity. Many of the low-skilled low-wage jobs fail to provide decent benefits, leading to a deeper decline in growth for people in these occupations.”

Much of the inequity in where black people and white people are concentrated on the income and occupation scale can be traced back to education. Two of the report’s recommendations are to invest in public education in order to reverse the budget cuts that have fallen disproportionately on school districts serving low-income people and people of color, and make college education more affordable and accessible for workers in low-wage occupations as well as high school graduates.

The study also calls for more public transportation to help unemployed people to get to where the jobs are. And the study urges support for public-sector jobs programs, such as those in President Obama’s American Jobs Act and in legislation now pending in the House that would provide jobs for unemployed youth in urban areas.

Most leading conservatives have for decades sought to dismiss the effects of structural racism, or say that African Americans themselves are to blame for their position at the bottom of the economic ladder. At times, conservative thinkers will acknowledge that there are racial inequities that must be addressed, but propose solutions that benefit the corporate class: privatization of schools, lower corporate taxes, and either partial or complete elimination of the minimum wage. Cain is, in fact, a member of this latter camp, proposing to create “opportunity zones” in low-income communities in which “cities will have to step up and remove some of the barriers that are in their city limits”—in other words, people of color get to seek work in an environment with fewer “barriers” restraining private sector behavior. This is supposed to bring us closer to racial equality and shared prosperity. In reality, of course, it simply reinforces our color-coded economy.

What we really need is serious commitments to end the ripples of Jim Crow that continue to flow through our economy. That means more than the blithe “rising tide lifts all boats” nostrums that come from some quarters of the right, and it certainly means pushing back against the denial of a problem that too often is heard from other conservative quarters. It will take hard, focused work to undo the effects of our racial history.

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