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Blue-Collar Jobs Can Save Black Middle Class

Despite the doomsayers, there are nondegree jobs that will ensure a prosperous future.


More bad news for black people. We're being told that there will be ever fewer public-sector jobs as city and state governments cut back while making do with less. Because employed black people are overrepresented in government jobs (20 percent compared with 15 percent for whites), the impact on middle-class black employment will be worse.

Now, do we approach this as a problem to be solved, or as a hopeless cry from below? Too often, the media commentary sounds like the latter. The typical tone is struck by political scientist Walter Russell Mead, who tells us, in the New York Times this week, "Unfortunately, blacks got on the train as it was coming to the end of the line. Blacks have moved into professional middle-class government employment just as state and local governments are heading over the financial cliff."

There is a kind of music in that way of putting things, but what we really want to know is what we can do about it. A race crusader of a century ago brought back to life today would be struck by the basic assumption that merely citing gloomy statistics about black people is a worthy action in itself. Articles about what was called the "New Negro" a 100 years ago were full of proposals as to what black people should do in the face of obstacles.

In itself, a chronicle of black people's problems that sounds utterly fatalistic carries an implication: that the entire system must be turned upside down if any real change is going to happen. This, for example, was Richard Wright's conviction in 12 Million Black Voices, in which he gave a picture of black America mired in misery and facing an implacable white racism. Wright was a Marxist and thought that what America needed was a complete overhaul of its basic operations and assumptions.

Looking back, we can understand why he did -- though even back then, quite a few informed black progressives thought that Wright was unconstructively pessimistic. Yet the civil rights revolution did happen, and while it was hardly as transformative as a Marxist would have wanted, it changed America profoundly. But today, is it really true that an economy with fewer government jobs boxes black people in so implacably that we need yet another upending in the national modus operandi?

No one said it did? Not in so many words, but I return to the recitation of the gloomy statistics, with only lip service paid to what might be done. The implication there, even if not spelled out, is that one has done one's job in just spelling out the bad news.

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And if that is a job, then we must ask what the purpose of it is. Is the purpose to say something like "America must eliminate institutional racism," or "America must be more welcoming to black middle-class aspirations," or other things that sound good but would be impossible to put into practice?

If government jobs are falling away, in addition to low-skilled manufacturing jobs that a man used to be able to support a family on, what can we do? We can't have a revolution, and so we have to look beyond that. When we do look beyond -- Mead actually suggests, as a final sentence with no concretes, that blacks look "beyond the public sector" -- do we see nothing?

No. There is much, and we need to talk about it as much as we talk about the bad news. If you can't raise a family working at the tire plant anymore, and a bureaucratic job at city hall is going to be harder to get, then how else can black people make a middle-class living?