SIDNEY WILHELM'S MUCH NEGLECTED 1970 WORK, WHO NEEDS THE NEGRO?, infused with a severely pessimistic projection about the future of African-Americans, is absolutely necessary reading for today. Any understanding of the current and future crisis of racial/ethnic population in the United States must take into account the profound techno-global political-economic transformations that Wilhelm glimpsed and that are even more developed now. Wilhelm argued that as technological efficiency such as automation reduced the need for workers, African-Americans were rapidly moving from being a functionally exploitable population, of use to the wider society, into being a marginalized, discarded people, confined to reservation-like ghettoes and controlled by increasingly heavy structures of repression. Today, 23 years later, Wilhelm's argument is even more salient as the computer age and the ability of capitalism to move its assembly lines around the world is undermining the need for a large industrial work force in the U.S. itself. My retrospective use of Wilhelm's work here is aimed at rethinking the dilemmas and directions of African-Americans as we move toward the 21st century. Although my notes here are aimed primarily at the African-American situation, there are several parallels with other racial/ethnic populations such as significant portions of the Latino, Indigenous, and Asian-American communities.
From Exploitable to Cast-Off People
Historically, as Wilhelm points out, African-Americans had been an "economic necessity" as slave labor and then suppressed "free" labor:
From the bondage of slavery up through World War II, the strong anti-
Negro values of White America could not compensate for the economic
reliance upon Negro labor; in spite of their prejudices, whites confronted
economic barriers in their treatment of the Negro (1970: 2).
Racism, in effect, had developed as a functional way of structuring the use of African-American labor. Segregation and ghettoization were part of the system of control that made that labor available.
Yet this historic functionality was changing under the impact of automation. Wilhelm predicted the increasing:
isolation of the Negro people, an isolation made possible by the changing
technology of automation.... [B]ecause of the sustaining racist nature of
their society, white Americans may well take full advantage of this new
economic opportunity to promote the Negro's dismissal, just as eco-
nomic opportunity and racism combined for the elimination of the native
Indian population.... [T]he Negro may very well come to be treated much
as the American Indian: confined to reservations or perhaps eliminated
through genocide (Ibid.: 3).
Those who find such predictions fantastic and believe that the goals of "equality, acculturation, or pluralism" are being actually attained are overlooking "the very radical economic shift taken by White America" (Ibid.). Instead of a pluralistic America resulting from "the Negro revolt," there will be "the vigorous re-emergence of racial separation with all the overtones of genocide" (Ibid.).
It is futile, said Wilhelm, to ignore "the drastic rate of technological change since 1950" (p. 150). There will be increased productivity on the part of capitalism. However, any notion that such increased productivity and efficiency will bring about greater inclusion of African-Americans in economic vitality is sadly mistaken. Automation will reduce the need for workers, "while private capital provides less employment, productivity does not suffer, but rather sets spectacular records" (p. 149). Obviously, said Wilhelm, "profit, not public welfare, is the goal of business. Attaining greater profits at the expense of labor takes precedence over the consequences to the general public" (p. 150).
Automation, of course, has a general impact on workers, across "race" lines. …