Part of a series of articles and commentaries describing the impact the change in the manufacturing industry has had on the Black Community in major American cities
Most American consumers are familiar with Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving when bargain hunters go on a retail blitz that officially kicks off Christmas holiday shopping.
But in my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, we remember Black Monday. It has a starkly different meaning, even for people like me from generations then unborn. In the years before Black Monday, everyone worked. Families thrived. Youngstown was an eminent producer of American steel, a true leader among its Steel Valley counterparts.
(Courtesy Photo/Facebook-Youngstown Steel Heritage)
Then came September 19, 1977. The workforce at one of the major industries, Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, reported to work Monday morning only to be stopped cold. The doors were shuttered. The plant was closed—for good.
That day symbolically signaled a transition from boom to spiraling bust; from a 20th Century industrial renaissance to a saga of economic ruin.
Without notice, nearly 5,000 workers were instantly thrown into unemployment. Most of them, three generations of workers, had clocked 20 to 30 years on the job. What followed was a continuous drum beat of industrial flight, the rippling failure of other businesses, soaring unemployment, homes abandoned, neighborhoods fractured; poverty, crime and despair.
Youngstown, once a city of 170,000 residents, has been reduced to about 64,000. Demographers call us America’s fastest shrinking city with the highest concentration of black poverty.
Industrial flight has imposed a unique burden on black communities, which historically lag behind their white counterparts in wealth, retirement savings and homeownership. The added pressure of housing discrimination saddled black families with limited mobility, leaving them trapped in broken neighborhoods.
The impact of industrial flight helps explain the monthly jobs data. In August, Black unemployment was 3.7 percent higher than Whites; Black youth joblessness was at 26 percent, compared to 14 percent for Whites. The impact is a problem hiding in plain sight. The failures can’t be blamed on the people who are jobless, nor do the solutions rest with them fixing the problem alone.
Youngstown is not unique. In Baltimore, Bethlehem Steel’s factory in Sparrow’s Point – once one of the largest steel plants in the world – at its peak employed some 35,000. By the 1980s, fewer than 8,000 workers remained, a whopping 77 percent decline. Further south in Birmingham, Alabama, Sloss Furnace Company and United States Pipe and Foundry Company were economic engines of the region. Both closed in the 1970s, leaving the city in disarray for years to come.
Similar stories can be told for places like Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Flint and Chicago. These areas, popularly called the “rust belt,” illustrate how industrial flight has unmade America, outsourcing offshore to cheap labor and exacting a toll on entire communities.
The disappearing manufacturing sector has profoundly impacted Black communities, but they affect all communities. More than 63,000 factories have closed in the United States since 2001 and we lost 5.7 million manufacturing jobs between March 1998 and December 2013.
But the damage can be reversed. Communities can recover. And in the end, everyone can benefit.
Public infrastructure investment is critical. By making smart investments in roads, bridges and the faltering systems of our cities and towns, we can create better environments and put people back to work.
Workforce development will also put the nation on a path to success. While a four-year college degree is commendable, it is just one path to forge meaningful skills and to earn a good living. Just as manufacturing jobs established middle-class neighborhoods across the country in the post-World War II era, so too can they be a part of the 21st Century revitalization.
Model programs are stepping to the new demands. For instance, in Kentucky, Michigan and South Carolina, private/public partnership apprentice ventures are equipping young workers with skills in technology, science and engineering – requisite knowledge to thrive in today’s manufacturing climate.
And finally, trade and import terms must be fair, ensuring that U.S. workers can share in America’s continued economic growth. Our policymakers should be bound to forge trade agreements that level the playing field for U.S. workers without widening inequality domestically or globally.
Who’s to say that Youngstown and other depleted industrial centers can’t come back? While Black Monday will be forever etched in our city’s history, the lessons and solutions can put us on a brighter path to the future.
Gerald Taylor, a doctoral student at Georgetown University majoring in philosophy, is author of a new report, Unmade in America: Industrial Flight and the Decline of Black Communities, sponsored by the Washington-based Alliance for American Manufacturing.