Is the Auto Show Over in Detroit?

By now, a Monday morning downer on the front page shouldn’t faze me. But when the White House announced that GM and Chrysler had still not come up with meaningful enough restructuring plans to get tax money, I took it personally. That’s because I’m both black and from the Midwest and, thus, I know a whole lotta people who are in for a whole lot more pain. And yes, I’m going there: The industry’s collapse is a uniquely black problem.

First, if you somehow missed the news, here it is: The feds had demanded both GM and Chrysler submit business plans demonstrating their viability in order to earn billions in federal subsidies. Both flunked the exam, leading President Obama into a morning lecture about “failed leadership” and how “we cannot continue to excuse poor decisions.” GM chief Rick Wagoner got canned (or fell on his sword, depending on who’s telling it); Chrysler endured hearing the president openly speculate about it going bankrupt.


So it’s back to the drawing board. But here’s the thing, which Obama stressed, we don’t have a lot of time for their dallying. And by “we,” I mean black people. I know, I know, it’s passé to put things in racial terms these days, and a bad economy is bad for everybody. That’s true, but the facts are the facts, and the auto companies’ fate matters in particularly acute ways to black folks. Consider the following numbers from the Economic Policy Institute:

The auto industry has been a rich source of jobs for black workers. More than 14 percent of its 2007 workforce was black, while blacks make up just 11 percent of the overall workforce. Those workers also pulled in close to $2 an hour more than blacks in the overall job market.

Fast forward to 2008. By the end of the year black auto employment had dropped 13.9 percent, compared to an overall industry job loss of 4.4 percent. In other words, its not just any autoworkers losing jobs; it’s black autoworkers specifically.


There are all kinds of structural reasons for these facts. Black workers continue to lag far behind the national rate for higher education, and the auto industry has long created solid, middle class jobs for people without college degrees. The industry also opened its doors to black workers long before others. We got the crappiest jobs, of course, but we got jobs, and that created the sort of institutional legacies that allow people to advance generation to generation within an industry. And it’s not just the car companies that matter. It’s everything from their large suppliers to the myriad small business offshoots that black entrepreneurs have launched.

But those are all the details. The sobering take home is this: The viability of black neighborhoods all over the Midwest is frighteningly intertwined with the viability of GM and Chrysler.


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