Race, Economic Class, and Employment Opportunity

By Jones, Trina | Law and Contemporary Problems, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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Race, Economic Class, and Employment Opportunity


Jones, Trina, Law and Contemporary Problems


I

INTRODUCTION

Of the 146,047,000 civilians in the U.S. labor force in 2007, approximately 82% identified themselves as White, 11% as Black or African American, 14% as of Hispanic or Latino/a ethnicity, and 5% as Asian. (1) That year, the median household income for all racial groups was $50,233. (2) With a poverty threshold of $21,027 for a family of four, (3) the median income figure seems to suggest that many Americans, at least until the recent economic crisis, (4) were making do? Yet a closer look at the data reveals a sobering reality, one of persistent economic inequality. In the United States, income distribution is highly concentrated at the top, with the top 1% of the population earning more than 20% of all income and the top 10% earning almost half of all income? Moreover, notwithstanding the rags-to-riches fairytales that have captured the imaginations of so many Americans, (7) the likelihood of moving from the bottom to the top is small. (8) The situation is worse for people of color. Despite measurable progress within some subgroups, (9) people of color still tend to earn significantly less than their White counterparts; (10) they tend to be segregated into lower-paying and lower-status occupations; (11) they tend to be unemployed at a substantially higher rate than Whites; (12) and they are twice as likely to be impoverished as Whites. (13)

These facts indicate that a sizable portion of the U.S. population exists in a state of frightening vulnerability, a condition that is no doubt heightened during times of economic transformation, downturn, or recession. (14) This paper explores some of the factors contributing to this vulnerability by examining the interplay between race and class (15) in the employment setting. Part II considers historical and contemporary forces leading to workforce stratification in the United States and highlights some of the ways in which people of similar economic statuses have been differently situated due to their race and the ways in which racially similar people have been differently situated due to their economic class. Part III assesses existing challenges to socioeconomic mobility in the United States. Part IV explores the potential for labor law and antidiscrimination law to ameliorate existing disparities. Importantly, my goal in this paper is not to propose policy recommendations or a "new paradigm" for thinking about racism, classism, and hierarchy. My purpose is merely to examine contemporary employment problems through a broader historical lens as we collectively attempt to unravel (or at least to understand) more threads in the tapestry that is inequality in America.

II

U.S. WORKFORCE STRATIFICATION: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Much of the socioeconomic stratification in the United States has historical roots. From its inception in the seventeenth century, the U.S. economy required laborers to work the fields of the South, to build the cities of the North, to facilitate western migration, and ultimately, to develop the West. Often where one wound up in the labor hierarchy was not a result of historical accident, but rather of design. (16) It is impossible to offer a nuanced account or to even summarize the entire history of labor in the United States in a few pages. Thus, this paper focuses on three aspects of that history--indentured servitude, slavery, and nineteenth-century Chinese and Japanese immigration--in an attempt to highlight the early interplay of race and class in determining access to opportunity and to suggest ways in which that early history may augment understanding of present conditions. The analysis is regrettably incomplete, for it does not explicitly consider the experiences of numerous groups (notably indigenous peoples, (17) Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and other Latino/a immigrant populations) whose stories form an essential part of the fabric of U.S. history and contemporary life.

A.

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