The Root Cities: Oakland’s Economic Power

In the second of a series profiling O-town, The Root takes a look at who's holding the purse strings in the city once called the Detroit of the West.

Getty Images

And even before that major migration, the black community gained a foothold in the middle class when the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organized and secured livable wages for the black men who rode the rails.

To be sure, there is still a significant middle- and upper-middle-class African-American population in the city. The East Oakland hills, with their pricey homes, have a largely African-American population. Several large African-American churches have well-heeled and politically connected congregations.

But Oakland has never been a city known for black industrialists or media moguls. There’s no Bob Johnson here, no Bronner Bros. or SoftSheen cosmetics. Those who’ve made money here are contractors, doctors, lawyers and those who’ve successfully navigated each run of the corporate ladder.

In recent years, the city’s black population has become more stratified, rich and poor, with the middle and working class disappearing. Oakland likely mirrors the nation in terms of African-American unemployment; in August the unemployment rate among African Americans was 16.3 percent (compared with 8.7 percent for whites and 9.6 percent overall), 18.8 percent for black males, 14 percent for black females and, among African Americans 16 to 19 years old, an incredible 38.1 percent for females and 51.7 percent for males. 

As one older African-American man noted, when he was raising his family, he could moonlight at the cannery if he needed some extra money. Young black men and women can’t even find a job, let alone get moonlighting work to earn extra money.

Some are betting on green industry to fill the void. Alternative energy sources would require major manufacturing operations. According to a federal bill for clean energy conversion for small and midsize business, 70 percent of the clean-energy systems and components are made overseas. Making homes and commercial buildings energy efficient also promises jobs. Oakland has emerged as a leader in the field, with green job-training programs that are being emulated by other cities, an ordinance that set some of the country’s highest targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and a coalition of business, labor unions and community organizations focused on green policy recommendations for the city.

Until federal funding for alternative energy is allocated, however, much of the potential for green jobs remains just that.

De La Fuente sees the loss of the middle class as a failure of government. “We should be giving people opportunities to be successful, to compete for the jobs of the future. Our job is to fix the schools and education. Unless we do that, with global competition, we’re moving toward a society of rich and poor and a shrinking middle class.”

A version of this article originally appeared in The OakBook.

Brenda Payton is a journalist who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. 

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.