As our nation struggles with and learns more about the coronavirus pandemic, one element that is clear is that our African-American communities have been among the hardest hit. This is true in terms of illness and deaths, and it is also true in economic impact.
America cannot turn a blind eye to these facts.
Counties in our country with high proportions of African-Americans make up 22 percent of all counties but over half of coronavirus cases and nearly 60 percent of deaths. Similarly, the effect of job losses has been more crushing on our communities of color than other Americans.
Why have these communities been so vulnerable? There are many important conversations that must be part of reaching a full answer. One of them has to do with our nation’s economic choices over the past few decades.
Liberalizing trade with China meant the destruction of our nation’s industrial core. It has sapped us of our ability to produce medical supplies and other strategically integral goods. It has annihilated an entire sector of work, severely diminishing our nation’s manufacturing base and millions of stable, productive jobs. It has uprooted entire communities. Instead of finding work and forming families, too many working-class Americans feel stripped of opportunity for a chance to move upward in our society.
Too often, this story is told solely in terms of its impact on the rural white voter — the Americans profiled in Hillbilly Elegy or the “prototypical Trump voter.” And, of course, the decline in our nation’s manufacturing base has been ruinous for American workers from all backgrounds. But it has also specifically meant that our nation’s communities of color have faced yet another barrier to closing the wealth gap ripped open by other chapters in our history.
The result has exacerbated the already devastating coronavirus outbreak for African-Americans. Deindustrialization pushes non-college-educated workers into service jobs, many of which are occupied by people of color. These roles are highly susceptible to infection, since they’re often face-to-face — the essential workers on whom we depend in this crisis. They’re also vulnerable to job loss, since remote work is rarely an option, and have weak attachment.
Now, the white-black earnings gap, which had been getting somewhat smaller in the wake of World War II, reopened in the 1970s and has remained wide since then. Just as many of the victories of the Civil Rights Movement started to win increased legal opportunities for Americans of color, a decline in American industry diminished economic opportunities.
As politicians and corporate leaders embraced the market fundamentalism of shareholder primacy, manufacturing jobs became numbers on ledgers to be manipulated and offshored. Opportunities for dignified and well-paying work fled many communities of color, which had once been powerhouses of American production.
As America allowed manufacturing in places like Chicago, Baltimore, Raleigh, and Detroit to dwindle, neighborhoods of color were emptied of decent jobs. All too often, job growth in such communities has meant more professional service roles, which tended to be dominated by highly educated whites. Between 1960 and 2010, research shows that those urban centers that have experienced the highest losses in manufacturing employment have also “experienced the smallest growth in average wages for black men.”
The result was a joblessness crisis for African-Americans that has now extended across generations and made it harder for America to close the racial wealth gap.
We see the effects born out in drops in black wages and employment rates, as well as a corresponding rise in poverty. Between 1960 and 2010, economic statistics lay bare the material decline. In those fifty years, our society saw an increase of 8 percentage points in poverty rates for black women, a 13.3 percent decline in wages for black men, and a 5.6 percent decline in employment rates for black men. During that same half-century, for men the racial wealth gap increased by 12 percent, and the employment gap increased by 3.4 percentage points.
The unbalanced composition of our economy that we have inherited from these decades of misguided economic thinking today bears down with particular force on black Americans. No American should be forced to suffer these indignities.
Pope John XXIII said that “it is in the nature of the common good that every single citizen has the right to share in it.” I do not believe we can judge a nation’s economy as successful unless it creates dignified opportunities for family and community success across its entire population. The moral legitimacy of our economy is dependent on the vitality of our communities of color. Likewise, the health and resilience of our economy are dependent on their success.
We must not shy away from identifying racism as an obstacle to black prosperity. Racism haunts our nation’s history and legal structures. And while it is undeniable that great progress has been made on this front, it is also dishonest to pretend it is no longer a factor at all. Should anyone doubt that, they need only consider Ahmaud Arbery’s murder. How else can we explain a young man out for a jog being chased down and shot in the street in an act of baseless vigilantism? How else can we explain how it took months before those responsible were arrested? And for those who still harbor any doubts, ask yourselves this: would any arrests have been made at all if a video of the incident had not emerged and led to a national outcry?
We cannot afford to ignore the role that race plays both in our economy and our society. It may manifest itself differently than it did a half-century ago, but it is still present — not just in our hearts, but in our actions. Any effort to address economic empowerment that ignores the role race plays as an obstacle to prosperity is doomed to fail.
Today, it is in our national interest to take a sledgehammer to that stumbling block. It is in our national interest to relight the fires of our great industrial belts, so we’re not left helpless and unable to produce our own supplies when the next pandemic hits. And it is our national interest to create an economy that offers opportunity to all Americans, but especially to those Americans who have suffered from its absence across generations.
The deindustrialization of America has hurt us all. But it is also racially discriminatory and has all too often singled out communities of color for particular pain. To right this wrong, we must build an economy that is pro-worker in its character. Doing so will take time and require a sustained, multipronged effort on all of our parts. In my own work, I have fought to reclaim our great national legacy of industrial policy, so we develop a more resilient economy that places investment in the American worker at its center.
A pro-American industrial policy that exists to assist industries essential to the national interest — but also, more generally, to create stable, dignified work — will help reorient our economy in that way. And as we do this, we must keep America’s racial economic gaps squarely in our view.
In my ongoing pursuit to reauthorize the Small Business Act, we have included provisions specifically meant to strengthen black workers and small business owners. The legislation is designed to rehabilitate some of those areas most blighted by deindustrialization, by incentivizing producers to locate their activities in economically distressed areas — in particular, deindustrialized communities of color.
Cultivating black excellence in education is also a major priority for me. Florida is fortunate to call itself home to four historically black universities. I have worked to deepen collaborative efforts between HBCUs and businesses to bolster opportunities for entrepreneurship among graduates.
To improve existing programs oriented at reducing racial inequality and better understand what more the government can do, we also need more data. For this reason, Senator Booker, Senator Harris, and I have put forth legislation to establish a Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown the consequences of turning a blind eye to these problems and letting the fire smolder. Realizing a common good in this country will remain out of reach so long as we neglect them. The challenges before us are too great to leave anyone behind. Rebuilding the economy so it promises resiliency, dignity, and opportunity to every American worker and family can no longer wait.