Blue-Collar Jobs Can Save Black Middle Class


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.

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?


The question is actually more specific: Few really think that black people with bachelor's degrees are going to be in urgent danger of winding up on the streets, even with a bad economy. The real question, as always, is how people without college can make a decent living.

Here's one answer. What color was the last ultrasound technician you may have had an appointment with? And do you get the feeling that he or she had a bachelor's degree? With overtime, an ultrasound technician can make over $100,000 a year, and health care jobs tend to be recession-proof. Community college — accessible and cheap — is the topic here, not how sad it is that it will be harder to get a job as a government clerk.


Or many tell us that there is a coming plumber shortage. We all know that plumbers aren't poor. Is it somehow unblack to be a plumber? Black plumbers don't think so; nor do black air-conditioning and heating installers, and nor did the 20-something black American electrician who installed a new light switch in my study last year. Is it truly a perversion of the American dream to teach black people to make a living working with their hands rather than inside a municipal building?

Then there are the kinds of jobs that no one grows up thinking about but can furnish six-figure incomes regardless. In these times, data transfer and storage is something any major company needs. People make better livings doing this than they do at the local Veterans Affairs office — and all you need is an associate's degree. There is also an impending shortage of air-traffic controllers.


The list goes on. Real estate brokers do not have to go to college to get their licenses, and the housing slump will end someday. And I am listing only the kinds of jobs that a wide range of people can excel in.

Those with a major bent for the culinary should consider that hotel chefs are not poor. I loved hearing on the New York subway one time some distinctly "Ebonic" voices animatedly discussing how their cooking-school class had just gone ("He was dissin' my rémoulade, yo!" — I'm not kidding!). Plus, the call for black people to be entrepreneurs is age-old. I won't repeat it here.


I have just proposed eight concrete goals for a future black middle class. There is, yes, a recession afoot, but I challenge anyone to explain why these jobs are realistic goals for black people only when the economy is good. Black people are no strangers to hard times.

I understand that we need people to tell us what's wrong. But I worry when we seem to take the announcement of bad news as a significant act all by itself, because it implies that we are waiting for a new reality that we all know, deep down, isn't coming. I know, as we all do, that we can take care of ourselves in the real world.


The proper announcement is not "Jobs Black People Won't Get Anymore" but "Jobs Black People Can Get Instead." If that's a conservative message rather than a progressive one, then it's time to redefine our terms.

John McWhorter is a frequent contributor to The Root.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.