Negro Unemployment: A Case Study (Hal Baron, 1963)

Synopsis by Chelsea Birchmier

Baron introduces this essay with a cartoon from a newspaper editorial in which one Black character says to the other, “Sure I’d be glad to integrate that lunch counter, if I had a dime for a cup of coffee.” This cartoon provides a segue into one of the central claims of the chapter: “Negro revolt” in the North in the 1960s would have to go beyond the Civil Rights strategy of the South to transform the conditions of Black unemploymentIn the North, de jure equality—equality before the law—did not preclude de facto inequality in the form of ghetto-based school and housing discrimination and dual job markets. In this paper, Baron examines the economic conditions of the North with a particular focus on Chicago in order to understand the future of Black struggle.  

He begins with national economic analysis, comparing Black and white employment conditions from 1947 to 1962. Compared to the relative stability of 1947 to 1957, job growth, particularly in the private sector, stagnated after 1957In particular, Black unemployment grew, with a racial gap in employment that almost tripled from 1948 to 1962 despite a decreasing educational gap. Black workers made up 20% of the unemployed, 26% of the long-term unemployed (15 weeks to 6 months), and 27% of the very long-term unemployed (6 or more months). Rising unemployment was related to the technological displacement of labor through automation and decreasing growth in the Gross National Product (GNP), the majority of which was been due to increasing productivity rather than an expanding labor force. Additionally, more than half of the rise in employment during this time period was due to part-time jobs, and 2/3 was due to women joining the labor force. These trends forewarned of “disaster” for the labor market in the coming decade, with 26 million youth entering the job market and a sluggish rate of job growth.  

He then narrows his focus to the local context of Chicago, providing population and labor force statistics for both the city of Chicago and the Chicago metropolitan statistical area. He reveals a large racial gap in unemployment for both the city and the metropolitan area in 1960, with Black unemployment around 11% and white unemployment less than 4%. He then points out that a government or labor market concept of unemployment only includes active job seekers, excluding “discouraged workers,” who have abandoned the job search due to the near impossibility of getting a jobUsing a “social concept of unemployment” that includes discouraged workers, he arrives at a Black male unemployment rate of 16% for the city of Chicago and 17% for the metropolitan area. Next, he discusses the issue of marginal employment, including workers who are part-time (for economic reasons rather than by choice) or earning below a living wage. In the Chicago metropolitan area, 31% of Black men were marginally employed compared to 12% of white men; 60% of the unemployed also fell into this category. He shows how Black unemployment was concentrated in low-income housing areas—public housing projects in particular—meaning that the Black unemployed generally could not rely on their neighboring community for financial support. Unemployment was accompanied by increasing dependence on welfare assistance such as Aid to Dependent Children (ADC). Like the national unemployment situation, he suggests that disaster was immanent in Chicago without extensive social and economic change 

Finally, Baron returns to the question of Negro revolt. He argues that the civil rights strategy of equal employment opportunity could not address the problems of the shrinking labor market in the 1960s economic downturn, nor could it address widespread Black unemployment in times of overall prosperity; to this latter point, he cites economists Joan Robinson and John Dunlop who describe the geographic and social isolation unemployment and “the balkanization of the unemployed,” respectively. While high rates of unemployment impacted other groups, including Hispanic people and coal mining regions, Baron suggests that the momentum and groundwork established by the Civil Rights Movement positioned Black unemployed people as the primary actors able to bring the economic question to national attention and to draw out other unemployed groups “from behind the color curtain.” He writes that unemployed Black workers were learning from the lessons of Black struggle in the South and adapting mass Civil Rights tactics to the Northern context. “Tomorrow, he writes, “the chances are that, taking a clue from the civil rights movement, the unemployed will speak for themselves.”

The Negro Worker in the Chicago Labor Market: A Case Study of De Facto Segregation (Harold M. Baron and Bennett Hymer, 1965)

Synopsis by: Chelsea Birchmier

Part I

The four years leading up to 1965 were marked by prosperity, according to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Yet, as Baron and Hymer point out, this prosperity did not extend to Black workers, who, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., constituted “an island of poverty in a sea of affluence.” They demonstrate this paradox of prosperity spatially by contrasting employment and housing conditions in the Northwestern suburbs, where most of the jobs were located, and the unemployment and public housing projects, which Baron and Hymer refer to as “apartheid [that was] almost complete” and “the largest single concrete reservation for a dispossessed urban peasantry” in Chicago’s South and West Sides. The condition of Black workers in Chicago, write Baron and Hymer, was reflective of the experience of Black workers in the urban North. In part I of this paper, Baron and Hymer demonstrate the “second-class status of the Negro worker” by examining racial differences between Black and white workers in four areas: labor market participation, unemployment, income, and occupation. Generally, the gaps in these areas were more marked for men than for women, which they explain as a result of all women experiencing job discrimination and Black women obtaining jobs more easily than Black men.

Unemployment estimates did not include those who were not actively seeking employment. For this reason, in his 1963 paper “Negro Unemployment: A Case Study,” Baron developed a “social concept of unemployment” that incorporated the “discouraged workers” who had given up on the job search. Nationally, while the Civil Rights Movement helped maintain labor market participation rates for Black men ages 20 to 34 years old, they declined for Black men over 34 and teenagers; rates decreased by one-sixth for Black male teenagers from 1960 to 1965 and only one-sixteenth for white male teenagers. While Black female teenagers had lower participation rates than white female teenagers, Black female participation for 25-to-44-year-olds was greater than white female participation, likely due to white women leaving the market to raise families.

Baron and Hymer point to systematic differences in employment between white and Black workers. Nationally, from 1950 to 1965, unemployment rates rose for all races, with nonwhite unemployment consistently greater and longer in duration than white employment. In Chicago, the nonwhite to white unemployment ratio was higher than the national ratio, with Black unemployment three times white unemployment for all three measures of unemployment from 1959 to 1961. Even in the tight Chicago labor market of 1965 with white unemployment at only 2 percent, nonwhite unemployment had only decreased to 6 to 7 percent, but this decrease was a result of more Black workers leaving the labor force as discouraged workers. Baron and Hymer cite Lester Thurow’s 1965 study to demonstrate that nonwhite employment went through greater fluctuations than white employment, with nonwhite workers being absorbed into and cast out of the labor market in economic upturn and downturn, respectively, at greater rates than white workers. Ultimately, Baron and Hymer viewed disparities in employment as primarily structural rather than skill-based or educational, as evidenced by Denis F. Johnston’s 1965 paper showing that a nonwhite worker with a high school education was no more likely to be employed than a white worker who had not completed eighth grade.

They then discuss income, which increased for all races between 1940 and 1965. Yet, the relative gap between Black and white incomes never closed, despite temporary improvements in relative Black wages in wartime tight labor markets. According to Baron and Hymer, the fact that Black male income was 41 percent of white male income in 1939 was reflective of regional differences between a rural Southern labor force and an urban Northern labor force. The relative income of Black men increased to 54 percent of that of white men in 1947 with the redistribution of Black labor to the urban North, but the gap had not narrowed by 1962, largely reflecting racial differences within cities as opposed to the former regional differences. Next, they compared personal income data by race in Chicago in 1949 and 1959 broken down by upper, middle, and lower income quartiles. The largest gap in 1949 was in the upper quartile, with Black men earning 68.3% of white men’s income. By 1959, in a reversal of the earlier trend, the relative income of Black men decreased substantially for the lower income quartile to only 60.8% of white men’s income. The quartile data pointed to emergent Black class stratification, with the income of the bottom quartile decreasing relative to the top quartile from 1949 to 1959 and the lower income earners constituting “an urban peasantry, living at a subsistence income, and clearly out of the main stream of the economy.” Baron and Hymer also show how the racial gap increased for Black men with age, suggesting greater opportunities for promotions and job security. Black female income did improve relative to white female income from 1949 to 1959 in the lower and median quartiles and remained constant in the upper quartile, but this might have been due to the growing number of white women working part-time jobs, and thus, earning smaller incomes. However, their analysis suggests that the gap in income between Black and white female heads of household was similar to the gap between Black and white men. As with employment, racial differences in income were systematic and could not be explained by differences in education; in fact, Black male college graduates earned less than white dropouts.

Finally, Baron and Hymer describe the occupational second-class status of the Black worker, who was concentrated in the occupations that were at highest risk of automation. As with income, while both Black and white workers had moved into more skilled and higher paying occupations in absolute terms, Black workers had not improved occupationally relative to white workers. In the city of Chicago, Black workers were concentrated in the unskilled and semi-skilled occupations while excluded from the professional, technical, and managerial jobs. Baron and Hymer constructed an occupational index to demonstrate the relation of Black workers to white workers within the occupational structure of Chicago. The closer the index value to 100, the greater the proportion of Black workers in higher paying, more skilled jobs relative to white workers. They found that between 1910 and 1950, the index ranged from 82 to 85 for both Black men and women, except for a drop in Black women’s occupational index in 1940 during the Great Depression. In the Chicago Metropolitan Area, Black men’s occupational index value dropped from 83 in 1950 to 77 in 1960, partly resulting from a greater proportion of white men entering professional and managerial occupations. Black women’s index increased from 83 to 87, likely due to an increasing proportion of Black women entering clerical jobs. The occupational index did not measure divisions within occupations; even within the higher paying occupations in Chicago, Black workers were earning substantially less than white workers, particularly in sales, managerial, or proprietor jobs. The smaller gap in occupations including operative, service workers, and laborers was potentially a result of minimum wage laws and union coverage, with a larger gap among craftsmen jobs, where trade unions often excluded Black workers.

Part II

After offering evidence for the second-class status of Black workers, Baron and Hymer go on to analyze its dynamics in Part II of this chapter. The racial disparities in labor force participation, employment, income, occupation, they write, were “permanent features of the Chicago labor market since World War I.” In contrast to white immigrants, for whom disparities dissipated after a generation or two, Black workers in Chicago, an increasing proportion of whom were born and raised in Chicago, were permanently concentrated into certain sectors of the labor market like they were into segregated schools and ghettos. Baron and Hymer first describe the racist ideologies that explained this second-class status and how they emerged as justification for existing conditions. Southern myths involved the biological and genetic inferiority of Blacks as justification for slavery and later peonage, as evidenced by writings from John C. Calhoun and James De Bow. With the mass migration of Black workers to the North after the 1920s, new ideologies developed to justify Northern racial institutions that attributed the conditions of Black people to individual and psychological deficits and racism to prejudices and preferences. Then, they furnish their own analysis in contrast to these myths and offer three generalizations to understand how the Chicago labor market drove the disparities discussed in Part I: a dual labor market with separate Black and white sectors, a surplus labor pool that included an unemployed and marginally employed labor force used to supply labor during shortages, and a complex Northern system of de facto segregation where racial barriers in one institutional area supported those in other areas. Finally, they describe how ideologies of racism and a lack of political power upheld these dynamics.

Baron and Hymer examine the dynamics of the racially dual labor market, where a primary labor market in which white workers are recruited and seek jobs exists alongside a smaller sector in which Black workers are recruited and seek jobs, each sector operating on separate supply and demand forces, with jobs transferred to the Black sector with the growth of the economy and the Black labor force. They then begin to explain the mechanisms through which jobs were distributed to white and Black workers. Black workers were segregated by industry as well as smaller units within an industry. In Chicago industries, Black workers were employed in government and primary metal industry jobs in much higher proportions than white workers, while the reverse was true in the banking and finance and non-electrical machinery industries. This trend intensified when looking at firms within an industry. Baron and Hymer present data from the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry that showed the proportion of firms that were segregated in 1964, meaning they did not hire nonwhite workers. Seven of ten small firms, one of five medium-sized firms, and one of thirteen large firms were segregated. Within firms, further segregation occurred by occupational classification; most professional, managerial, sales, and skilled craftsmen classifications excluded nonwhite workers. When these occupational classifications were not segregated, the departments within them often were, with Black workers often in “hot, dirty departments” like foundries. Generally, they write, the lower positions in the occupational hierarchy were more likely to be integrated. An exception was found in the increased employment of Black women as clerical workers. While less marked, racial divisions also existed within government jobs, where many skilled Black workers found employment due to decreased hiring barriers. While 19 percent of US Government employees in Chicago’s Civil Service Region were Black, 27 percent at the lower level and only 1.7 percent at the higher level were Black. In another example, the Chicago Board of Education, the largest employer of Black professionals, the majority of Black employees taught and served as administrators for primarily Black schools. Segregated hiring patterns led to separate job-seeking patterns, with Black workers looking for jobs in the Black labor market and white workers in the White labor market. The recruiting practices of firms, the referral practices of employment agencies, and the guidance of schools and counselors reinforced racial dualism in the labor market.

Baron and Hymer then argue that the Black labor force consisted of three components: a Black service sector, which primarily supplied services to the Black community, a standard sector, which supplied services and goods across communities, and a surplus pool of labor that was either unemployed, out of the labor force, or marginally employed. They estimated that about 50 percent of the Black labor force was employed in the standard sector, 10 percent in the Black service sector, and 40 percent in the surplus labor pool. The workers who were marginally employed in the surplus labor pool worked in low-paying, dirty, and unsafe jobs that were often temporary with few possibilities for advancement, including jobs that were given to Black workers as white workers climbed the occupational ladder and those that had become “traditional Negro jobs” like bootblacks, busboys, and servants. The level of subsistence income for workers in the surplus sector was primarily determined by welfare payments, and in Chicago, one-fourth of Blacks received public assistance. Additionally, the size of the pool depended on the level of unemployment in the economy at large and the level of white immigration. They suggest that movement out of the surplus labor pool occurred during period of economic expansion, which had facilitated Black workers moving out of the surplus sector from 1940 to 1965; however, the ongoing expansion of the Black labor force, particularly though teenagers entering the labor market as well as migration from the South, meant that the tight labor market was not enough to reduce the surplus labor pool. They make a comparison to studies of underdeveloped countries in which there a technologically advanced and industrialized sector existed along with a subsistence peasant sector with high marginal and unemployment. Similarly, they write, the labor market in the U.S. was divided into a skilled technologically advanced sector made up of white workers and an “urban peasantry” in unskilled and marginal jobs. During labor shortages, Black workers were brought into the general economy without raising wages, they suggest, because they were previously earning subsistence incomes. Baron and Hymer offer racial dualism and the surplus labor pool as explanations for why unemployment rates in the U.S. were greater than workers in Western Europe would accept; the increased rate of Black unemployment helped keep white unemployment down. However, they suggest, the Civil Rights Movement had the potential to make a high Black unemployment rate unacceptable.

According to Baron and Hymer, the disparities in the labor market were reinforced by racial institutions in other areas including the de facto barriers of housing, schooling, and employment discrimination that were not mandated by law but operated as though they were. These institutions formed a self-perpetuating network that was more than the sum of its parts such that barriers were mutually reinforcing, and reducing barriers in a single area had little effect without transformation in others. Employment discrimination occurred in various forms, including screening based on criteria that was direct (e.g., race) or indirect (e.g., residence near the job), cultural biases, lack of advertisements and recruiting in Black media, and exclusion from trade unions (while the industrial unions were often less discriminatory). Housing segregation was evident in Chicago, as was demonstrated by Chicago Urban League maps from 1950, 1960, and 1964, showing an expansion of Black ghettos on the South and West sides of Chicago, following historical block-by-block segregation patterns. Housing segregation confined Black workers geographically so that they were unable to access jobs, which were rapidly moving away from the Black ghettos of Chicago and into the Northwest from 1957 to 1963. School segregation had impacts on the skills and training of Black workers, with Black students concentrated in schools of inferior quality and faced with low expectations. Baron and Hymer quote social psychologist Kenneth Clark, who said, “Personnel managers need no longer exercise prejudicial decisions in job placement; the educational system in Chicago screens Negroes for them.” These barriers were supported by racist ideology and a lack of political power. White decision-makers from the suburbs were making decisions about Black employment, education, and housing. Black workers controlled few major institutions, owned few companies and held no wealth. They reference James Q. Wilson, who writes that the Black democratic organization, while it was able to mobilize voters, was secondary in power to the Cook County Democratic Party and did not hold power proportionate to these votes. The Civil Rights Movement was filling that vacuum of political power by using mass participation to influence decision-makers. It was yet to be seen whether the Civil Rights Movement would be able to transform the network of de facto barriers, but Baron and Hymer noted that they were working to redistribute employment and improve education and housing.

Finally, Baron and Hymer conclude that the dual labor market was a structural phenomenon that necessitated a transformation of social and economic institutions. The implications of this were that transformation had to occur on both the demand side, by removing hiring discrimination, and the supply side, by addressing school and housing segregation, that programming had to be built under the assumption of racial dualism in the labor market, and that the disparities would continue if the market was expected to check them and the network of racial institutions continued to support them. Long-term changes had to be made at all levels, including employers, unions, agencies, and the government to deconstruct the dual structure. The Civil Rights Movement had primarily impacted discriminatory hiring barriers, rather than housing and school segregation, and led to new laws and Federal Executive orders to this end. Firms contracted by the U.S. government became subject to the President’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, and some Black workers were employed in professional and managerial jobs. These changes were mostly symbolic, however, and no major structural transformations had occurred. These minimal changes were summarized in a comment from an observer that “in the past personnel men used to discriminate against 9 out of 10 Negro applicants; today they only discriminate against 8 out of 10.”

The Web of Urban Racism (Harold M. Baron, 1968)

Synopsis by Madeleine McQuilling

In this chapter, Hal Baron spends a few pages on each of his main themes (history, housing, labor, education, politics) and explains how they all represent different aspects of what he terms the “web of urban racism.” The web of urban racism, a phrase Baron uses in his writings from the late 1960s onwards, denotes the network of institutional racism intrinsic to American society (1). Baron explains: 

 The impersonal institutions of the great cities have been woven together into a web of urban racism that entraps Negroes much as the spider’s net holds flies – they can wiggle but they cannot move very far. There is a carefully articulated interrelation of the barriers created by each institution. Whereas the single institutional strand standing alone might not be so strong, together the many strands form a powerful web. But here the analogy breaks down. In contrast to the spider’s prey, the victim of urban racism has fed on stronger stuff and is on the threshold of tearing the web. 

 Written in 1968, Baron’s sympathies for the black power movement surge beneath his calm prose. The “Long, hot summer of 1967” shone a spotlight on the problematic racrelations in America; by its light, the web of urban racism becomes more visible, and thus, more vulnerable. Baron is confident that its victims have “fed on stronger stuff,” and are now capable of “tearing the web.” In order for readers to fully appreciate this anticipated moment of liberation, Baron details how the web of urban racism came about, and how it continues to impact every sphere of daily life.   

 Baron starts his history of urban racism in America with the Civil War, declaring that the “abolition of slavery did not mean the abolition of racism.” To the contrary, the racism decreased only in its visibility, taking “on a new institutional form in which it was still effective in subjugating blacks and politically disarming poor whites.” In other words, the racism starts shifting from de jure to de facto. Baron sees de jure segregation, or legalized segregation, as a largely southern system; in contrast, he considers de facto, or automatic segregation a predominantly northern one But, Baron observes, “as the southern population becomes more demographically similar to the northern population, the nature of racism is beginning to assume greater similarities, especially in metropolitan centers.” The difference between de jure and de facto segregation is the difference between a school that forbids the enrollment of black students, and a school built in such a way that no black students live within its district. The great migration of the early 20th century made it painfully clear that racism survived the Civil War; it was alive and well––northern as well as southern.  

For Baron, the demographic shift represented a “push-pull phenomenon.” “The push,” he argues, “was the displacement of Negroes from southern agriculture, occasioned first by soil exhaustion, then by boll-weevil destruction and crop diversification.” The labor opportunities in the agricultural south were further diminished by the rise of tractors, herbicides, and agricultural machines. The pull of the city,” Baron continues, “has primarily been exerted through wartime labor shortages,” and the demand for unskilled labor that they occasion. The northern cities further appealed to black people because their system of de facto racism was “less obvious than the South’s Jim Crow.” Baron emphasizes that the demographic shift from rural to urban spaces is just as important as the one from south to north. This urbanization is important to Baron, because: “The great racial conflict now so manifest in the city is both generated and restrained by its major institutions.”  “Indeed,” as Baron declares in no uncertain language, “the white suburban noose around the city is drawing tighter.” 

 In this report, Baron advances the thesis that de facto segregation is actually worse than de jure segregation: “As the specific barriers become less distinctive and less absolute, their meshing together into an overriding network compensates so that the combined effect of the whole is greater than the sum of the individual institutions.” Baron clarifies: 

 For examples: the school system uses the neighborhood school policy which combined with residential segregation operates as a surrogate for direct segregation; suburbs in creating very restrictive zoning regulations, or urban renewal developments in setting universally high rents can eliminate all but a very few Negro families on the basis of income; given the racial differentials produced by the school system, an employer, by using his regular personnel tests and criteria, can screen out most Negroes from desirable jobs. 

 This is the web of urban racism. Although these racial controls represent a web from a structural standpoint, “from within the Negro community,” Baron explains, “it tends to appear that there is just a massive white sea that surrounds a black island.” This analogy brings to mind Du Bois’ cave allegory in Dusk of Dawn (or Myrdal’s reference to it in An American Dilemma), while echoing Martin Luther King’s “lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” (2). As though to emphasize this socioeconomic aspect, Baron now moves from a broad discussion of the web of urban racism to its role in the dual labor market specifically.  

 While the education gap between black and white workers had nearly closed by the 1960s, the gap in salary, employment, leadership opportunities, and socioeconomic status has only grown. Baron notes that even “the United States Department of Labor has had to conclude that social and economic conditions are getting worse, not better’” for people trapped in slum sectors. For Baron, this inequality results from a dualism in the labor market that divides job openings along racial lines.  Contrary to other reports at the time, the Chicago Urban League’s “own studies indicate that the Negro job-seeker is quite the rational economic man, and thus the financial discrepancy exists because the black worker faces a very differently structured set of opportunities” than his white counterparts. Baron elaborates:  

In effect, certain jobs have become designated as “Negro” jobs. Negro workers are hired by certain industries, by particular firms within these industries, and in particular jobs within these firms. Within all industries, including government service, there is unmistakable evidence of occupational ceilings for Negroes. Within establishments that hire both Negro and white, the black workers are usually limited to specific job classifications and production units. An accurate rule of thumb is that the lower the pay or the more disagreeable and dirty the job, the greater the chance of finding a high proportion of Negroes. 

 This dual labor market works in tandem with the dual housing market to keep black people financially subordinate.  

 It goes without saying that ghettos are suboptimal places to live. As Baron clarifies: “The ghetto is bad not because it is inhabited by black people, but because it operates as a subjected enclave.” It exists specifically to trap black people, both physically and psychologically. As Baron proves for the Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority case, many black families have little to no choice in their housing arrangements. “Overwhelmingly,” he explains, “real estate brokers refuse to show Negroes properties outside the ghetto or transition neighborhoods. Lending institutions refuse to grant them mortgages for properties beyond these confines.” Furthermore, the CUL found that housing units in the Chicago ghettos cost 10% more than comparable housing in white sectors. This so-called “color tax” extends to retail prices, allowing “merchants operating in the ghetto [to] charge more for goods and credit or sell inferior quality merchandise at regular prices.” When the lower wages and higher cost of living cause black people to depend upon welfare, “the bureaucrat machinery” degrades and infantilizes them, treating them “like wards of the state, rather than responsible adults.” The web of urban racism intentionally erodes black peoples’ power and credibility; the housing market threads are perhaps the most insidious, as physical location dictates one’s political and educational opportunities.  

Neighborhood school districting and gerrymandering systems prevent conditions in the ghetto from improving. As Baron remarks, “educational institutions which provide markedly different [inferior] results for black and white children are key to the structure of urban racism.” Children of black workers are almost always districted to underfunded, overcrowded schools, whose students lag years behind their white peers, thus trapping them in the same unskilled labor market as their parents. “Educational systems have become a major pillar of racism,” Baron observes, “precisely because education has become so important in the total scheme of our society.” That said, Baron is far more concerned about the psychological impact these schools have on their students than he is with reduced academic achievements. For Baron, ghetto schools exist “as extremely efficient training institutions” designed to instill in black children the role of “a subordinate ‘Negro.’” These children grow up surrounded by middle class black teachers and principals who can only maintain their positions of relative power by inculcating their “lower status black charges with the idea that they are unteachable.” This environment “conditions the individual Negro youngster to expect a subordinate position for the rest of his life” and so he is not surprised to find the exact same pattern in the political sphere. Baron describes how black office holders can be elected (in predominantly black districts), but that any effort to improve the lives of their black constituencies represents career suicide. “Even where skillful politicians have risen to the top, as in Harlem with J. Raymond Jones and Adam Clayton Powell,” Baron explains, “they have been cut down or circumscribed basically because they were black.” From this, Baron concludes that people working within urban institutions are unable to dismantle the web of urban racism precisely because they themselves are trapped inside it.  

“The Web of Urban Racism” is one of the last reports Baron wrote for the Chicago Urban League, as he left later that year. This document––which is uncharacteristically radical for the CUL––shows Baron’s shift from the integration model of the civil rights movement to the more radical one of black nationalism. Indeed, Baron argues that the student led black power movements have the greatest chance of tearing through the web. Today, under the slogans of black pride and black consciousness’” Baron observes, we are witnessing a revolution in the role expectations of high school and college students. They are disrupting the whole racist system by categorically refusing both the role of unteachable student, and that of token official. Baron explains that, the development of these new role concepts will bring the black youth into conflict with the racist norms and methods of operation in our major institutions,” and in doing so, places them on the “the threshold of tearing the web.” Baron believes that the success of these youth led movements will “depend upon the social, economic and political strategies” implemented, which is perhaps why he supported Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers after a short stint as a research associate at Northwestern University.  

In the final section, Baron draws on W.E.B. Du Bois to detail a possible future in which black and white cultures exist symbiotically. He explicitly rejects “the assumption that the dominant white society, which exercises racism’s controls, is the healthy organism into which the sick ghetto should dissolve.” Baron concludes the article with this evocative, prophetic paragraph: 

 White men and black men are locked together in this nation so that they determine one another’s fate. Since the day has come when the darker brother will no longer suffer trustingly like Job, a new destiny awaits them both. Racism’s cancer, disturbed by the resistance, can feed upon itself and bring greater destruction in its wake. Or, the healthy elements in the two cultures can contend and react upon each other, creatively transforming themselves in the process. The one possibility denied to each culture is to operate in isolation as though the other were not there. 

 This message of hope, tempered as it is with Old Testament style warnings, rhetorically places both white and black cultures on equal footing. They are both valid, they are both locked, and both of their fates will be impacted by the other.  





1.Hal Baron uses the phrase “web of urban racism” in the following works––Public Housing: Chicago Builds a Ghetto (1967), Negroes in Policy-Making Positions in Chicago: A Study in Black Powerlessness in Chicago’” (1968), “Report on the Chicago Urban League, Annual Meeting 1968,” The Demand for Black Labor: Historical Notes on the Political Economy of Racism (1971), Building Babylon: A Case of Racial Controls in Public Housing (1971), “Institutional Racism in Modern Metropolis” (1973), Racism Transformed: The Implications of the 1969s (1982).

2.W.E.B Du Bois cave analogy:“It is difficult to let others see the full psychological meaning of caste segregation. It is as though one, looking out from a dark cave in a side of an impending mountain, sees the world passing and speaks to it; speaks courteously and persuasively, showing them how these entombed souls are hindered in their natural movement, expression, and development; and how their loosening from prison would be a matter not simply of courtesy, sympathy, and help to them, but aid to all the world. One talks on evenly and logically in this way, but notices that the passing throng does not even tum its head, or if it does, glances curiously and walks on. It gradually penetrates the minds of the prisoners that the people passing do not hear; that some thick sheet of invisible but horribly tangible plate glass is between them and the world. They get excited; they talk louder; they gesticulate. Some of the passing world stop in curiosity; these gesticulations seem so pointless; they laugh and pass on. They still either do not hear at all, or hear but dimly, and even what they hear, they do not understand. Then the people within may become hysterical. They may scream and hurl themselves against the barriers, hardly realizing in their bewilderment that they are screaming in a vacuum unheard and that their antics may actually seem funny to those outside looking in. They may even, here and there, break through in blood and disfigurement, and find themselves faced by a horrified, implacable, and quite overwhelming mob of people frightened for their own very existence.” W.E.B Du BoisDusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 66.  

The Demand for Black Labor: Historical Notes on the Political Economy of Racism (Harold M. Baron, 1978)

Synopsis by Kurtis Kelley

In The Demand for Black Labor, Baron expertly guides the reader through a historical narrative of Black Americans’ relationship with the ‘economic base of racism’ to provide insight into their oppression within the modern capitalist system. For Baron, the position of Black workers and trajectory of Black labor is governed by two major forces: ‘the laws of capitalist development, and the laws of national liberation’. While Baron focuses his analysis on capitalist development and its effect on the historical demand for Black labor, his acknowledgment of the saliency of Black Nationalist politics and liberation is a vital thread of Baron’s essay. From slavery into the present, the demands on Black labor by capital have brought about momentous shifts in U.S. culture and policy, the economic power of the US elite, and the autonomy of Black Americans.

To provide the ideological legitimacy needed to sustain such a system, Baron displays how a culture of control fermented within U.S. and beyond. This cultural system was fostered by white elites to both maintain dominance over enslaved Africans and to keep the white population that did not hold slaves from rebelling against a system they could not control. Unique to the United States, compared to other places within the Americas, was the creation of “rationale regarding the degradation of all blacks”, which Baron argues was vital for the continued enslavement of “some” of the US Black population. For Baron, these attributes of Black chattel slavery set it apart from other forms of slavery and indeed constituted a “new type of social formation,” entirely.

Shifts in the demand for Black labor during slavery brought about a more “self-contained operation” as capitalism matured and the international slave trade slowed. Baron notes that after Independence from Britain, cotton came to dominate the aims of the southern planter class and slave owners in the Upper North were more than willing to sell their slaves southward given their increased value as new imports of Africans were nearly halted. The North supported slavery as well, by sponsoring European immigration despite the presence of Black workers and the enforcement of federal slave laws.

According to Baron, the position of the “quasi-free Negro” provides readers with vital insight for future transformations in the demand for Black labor. Still victims of a vicious anti-black society, non-slave Blacks were subject to many of the same systems of control that the enslaved were, albeit from a different position. These oppressions combined to restrict Black people from securing a stable position within society.   Just before the Civil War, Baron notes that around 89% of Black people were enslaved within the US. Thus, quasi-free Negroes had their position “ascribed from that of the mass of their brothers in bondage.” According to Baron, as economic competition increased in urban areas with the maturation of capitalism, many non-slave Blacks lost what skilled positions they had and left large cities altogether.

Baron concludes the section on the slave period by stating simply that there was not a significant demand for non-slave Black labor. The theft of Black labor within the South that took place outside of the plantation system simply augmented the system of slavery to fit the desired setting. Furthermore, the racist, anti-black logic that produced these oppressions would carry over within American culture and politics long after slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy and their gradual federal re-integration that followed.

The Reconstruction era, which heralded massive advances in the lives of formerly enslaved Africans (now US citizens), was short-lived and its conclusion ushered the white Southern elites back into power after their defeat during the Civil War. With this power, they once again sought to maintain control over Black labor through political pressure and outright physical violence. The agrarian system that was established in the post-Reconstruction South created a class of Black workers that had less power and autonomy than any group of white workers, whom they came into increasing competition with during this period.   According to Baron, the “abolition of slavery did not mean substantive freedom to the black worker”, which was demonstrated by the fact in both eras the Black peasantry only received only enough to subsist on. This low position, combined with a viciously anti-black American culture, created conditions in which the Black worker was increasingly tied to the bottom rungs of the white-controlled US agrarian economy.

The increasing competition between Black and White workers during post-Reconstruction era brought about several important shifts for the demand for Black labor. Much of this competition was centered on land rivalries, with emancipated Black families seeking to secure land having to confront an overtly racist system of Southern politics. With the increasing numbers of poor white farmers in the south, the Southern political elite sought to further cement their hegemonic control over both Black and White workers through shoring up gaps within their “color-caste distinctions”. Baron also notes that massive shifts were also taking place within the Southern ruling class, which saw much land trade hands away from former slave masters into the possession of merchants and lawyers. This transformation saw decision-making amongst the Southern elite shift from a more paternalistic approach to “land-owners’ making their decisions more nakedly, on the basis of pure entrepreneurial calculations.” In such a position, Black workers faced oppression from both the Southern elites’ decision making and the competition from landless whites.

During the Reconstruction era, the Black workers desire for land was inseparable from their quest for self-sufficiency and autonomy. With the temporary defeat of this quest by the forces that conspired to end Reconstruction, this momentum faced a massive setback. While movements for Black national liberation wouldn’t renew themselves until more northward migrations brought Black workers into urban centers in higher numbers, the “embryonic nationalism” and quest for racial unity held by these workers were captured in the movements surrounding Booker T. Washington and other smaller “exodus groups” which set up independent Black settlements throughout the lower-Midwest and southwest in particular.

With the oncoming of the World War I, the position of Black workers again faced major transformations. With the precarious relationship between the US and European nations, immigration from Europe was curtailed—opening up sectors of the labor market to Black workers at unprecedented levels. Baron identifies three key developments that arose from these events: First, the outmigration of millions of African Americans from the South to urban centers in the North; Second, the development of a Black proletariat in these urban centers; and third, the shift away from tenancy farming in the South. According to Baron, while World War I started many of these societal shifts, “World War II was to repeat the process in a magnified form and to place the stamp of irreversibility upon it”.

In these urban centers, Black workers remained more vulnerable to unemployment and the racist white working class, with help from city and state institutions, carried out violent campaigns of “race riots” throughout urban Black communities in the North. Often, white management would utilize the inclusion of Black workers to divide the work force—causing white workers to draw focus away from inter-class conflicts to confront the Black worker menace they were becoming more confronted with. Furthermore, Black workers were nearly always kept from skilled positions or managements positions. These issues were exacerbated by the tactic of white company owners attracting the subservience of a Black managerial class, made up of Republican anti-union “leaders”, to gain influence in the Black community. In the south, Black workers had little opportunities in southern Industries like mining & lumber, and remain largely restricted to agrarian work throughout the inter-war period.

By the 1970’s, only one-fifth of Black people lived in the South, and the percentage of Black agrarian workers fell to 4% of the Black labor force. The increasing urbanization of Black people brought, among other things, massive changes for the superstructure of racism within the US. For Baron, “it meant the disappearance of the economic foundation on which the elaborate superstructure of legal Jim Crow and segregation had originally been erected.” As monopoly state capitalism matures, economic shifts have caused Black workers in the US, like “non-citizens” from Southern Europe and Northern Africa that fill up the gaps of Western Europe’s labor market, to maintain a marginal status due to their race.

According to Baron, the endemic subordinate status of Black workers amounted to a “system analogous to colonial forms of rule”. Unmoved by the potency of Civil Rights Era protest to alter the demand for Black labor, Baron suggests that the racist institutions of this country can only be altered by a “earthquake in the heartland.” Unable to de-colonize the Black community due to its attachment with major urban centers, the American capitalist relies on the hegemonic control of Black labor to retain its hegemonic position.