Tribal Connections Shape Minority Wage Realities


The Great Migration of blacks from the southern United States to northern manufacturing hubs in the 1920s and 30’s presaged the greatest equalization of wages America had ever seen. With the 1980s came deregulation, union busting and automation that dramatically suppressed manufacturing payrolls across the board.

Black wages have only lost ground during the intervening 30 years.

The Economic Policy Institute recently released a report entitled, “Black-White Wage Gaps Expand With Rising Wage Inequality”.

The report cites that wage and opportunity gaps between whites and blacks are real and that they are bad for business and society.

The report found average hourly wages for African-American men were 22.2 percent below those of white men in 1979, the first year such figures were available, and 31 percent below those of white men in 2015.

In other words, the wage gap increased nearly 10-percent over the thirty year period of deregulation of much of the financial industry and Corporate America, when the rich got noticeably richer and the middle class shrunk.

Black women have fared even worse since the early 1980s.

The six percent wage gap between white and black women in 1979 tripled, to 19 percent, by 2015.

Part of the cause of the loss of wage parity comes down to the erosion of the manufacturing sector and the decline of the unions. Blacks from the time of Henry Ford and through the 1970s were able to migrate into the middle income bracket through the manufacturing jobs that collective bargaining protected and promoted.

When the relatively low-skilled jobs disappeared blacks did not have the education levels or — locally, at least — the opportunities to re-skill and re-job.

Harvard University labor economist Richard Freeman said at a forum that discussed the paper’s findings that, “The biggest thing is to get everybody’s wages going up, and then do things that help specific groups. The share of national income going to all workers has become smaller and smaller.”

In addition to the economic and policy causes producing the wage gap are social realities. Freeman called them “unobservable connections”:

“Favoritism in hiring and promotions enhance the wage gap,” Freeman noted. “Such tilts as white men hiring other white men, alumni preferences, and networking — or lack of it — are not something governments can do anything about,” he admitted.

It’s fair to call this sort of “tilting” behavior “tribalism”.

In other words, government policy can only go so far in building a fair society only when the dominant tribe believes its interests can be advanced. When the tribe’s interests or the tribe itself is under threat, it will thwart the will of society at large.