That Slow Steady Progress

Economic Growth and Employment Opportunities for Minorities.
by Dale L. Hiestand.
Columbia University Press. 127 pp. $6.00.

Everybody seems to know the general course of 20th-century employment opportunities for Negroes in America. Slow but steady progress into better jobs and higher pay until the 1940's. A dramatic breakthrough during World War II into fields hitherto closed to Negroes. A slowing of progress but a consolidation of gains during the 1950's. A future rendered suddenly uncertain by the new militancy of the civil rights movement during the 1960's.

Is this, however, the true picture of events? Dale Hiestand of Columbia University's Human Resources Project has sifted the rich census of occupations data of the last half century in order to trace the economic fortunes and misfortunes of the Negro minority practically to the present moment. His investigations do not support the cliché of slow but steady progress in the Negro struggle to get and to keep better jobs. During World War I, they made their first penetration into semi-skilled occupations but in the New Era of the 1920's there were no further significant gains. During the 1930's Negroes lost more jobs proportionally than whites and were compelled to cede some areas of employment they had previously entered. Even the 1940's, the best decade for Negro opportunity in this century, produced less extensive advances than we like to believe. Although more Negroes entered professional and technical occupations than ever before, they were overwhelmingly the low-paid specialties of teaching and social work rather than the high-pay, high-prestige vocations such as medicine, science, or engineering. Although Negroes did acquire unusually large numbers of skilled jobs during the 40's the largest single increase in their opportunities was in the low-paid, unpleasant service jobs.

One of the most depressing features of the record is the persistent over-representation of Negroes in unskilled work. Hiestand notes that in 1910, there were proportionately 50 per cent more unskilled Negro laborers than there were whites. But by 1960 the situation had so far deteriorated that Negro unskilled laborers were nearly four times as numerous, proportionally, as white laborers. While many Negroes have secured and retained new opportunities, many others have actually slid down the occupational ladder. To show the combined effect of these two movements Hiestand has devised an ingenious occupational index that compares Negro and white positions in the occupational structure.1 Here are his results:

Occupational Position of Negroes Relative to Whites (In Percentages)
Male Female
1910 78.0 78.0
1920 78.1 71.3
1930 78.2 74.8
1940 77.5 76.8
1950 81.4 81.6
1960 82.1 84.3

The index tells a clear enough story. Slow but steady progress is a derisory description of the 1910-1930 rise from 78.0 to 78.2 per cent of the white position. And while the improvement between 1940 and 1950 was real enough, the statistics for the next decade imply a return to the geological pace of the 1910-1930 period.


In short, Hiestand's careful statistical sketch conveys anything but a cheerful message about even the recent experience of Negroes in the great American job and personality market. Negroes have fared best when the American economy was operating at full blast during wartime emergencies. They have not received their fair share of jobs in new industries where growth is most rapid and prospects are best. The job experiences of Negroes in new industries still follow the standard pattern: “ldquo;White workers capture the newly growing fields in which labor resources are scarce, pay levels are good, prospects for advancement are bright, the technology is most advanced, and working conditions are the most modern.”rdquo; In time, as still newer industries emerge, these once-new industries become less attractive to white workers, and, inevitably, “ldquo;at this point Negroes secure these jobs, which are quite attractive in comparison to what had formerly been available to them.”rdquo; But they are no longer the best jobs, nor are they even the most secure jobs, for the threat of labor-displacing technical progress is largest in these aging industries. Thus Negroes tend to gain less and gain it later than white workers and have more trouble hanging on to what they do get.

The outlook, according to Hiestand, is no less grim:

The remaining discrepancies between the Negro and white occupational positions . . . are so great that the prospects of substantial equality during the present century are not particularly promising. . . . Despite the current civil rights efforts, there are little prospects that all the differences between whites and Negroes in terms of their regional and residential patterns, their backgrounds, and in the way employers, unions, and others in the labor market treat them will soon be erased.

To argue against this prognosis one has to assume that white Americans will, willingly or unwillingly, dismantle the structure of residential and educational segregation which invalidates the best of civil rights legislation and which fosters merely the futile anger of this summer's riots in the cities of the North.

This is the burden of Hiestand's tale. His monograph is not the easiest book of the season to read. It bears the marks of its origin as a doctoral dissertation: statistics are numerous, language is sober, and conclusions are usually guarded. Nevertheless, anyone who examines Hiestand with care and broods sufficiently long on some of his statistics will supply emotion enough of his own.

1 The index is constructed on the assumption that an occupation is “ldquo;better”rdquo; if wages and salaries are higher. In 1910 the 78.0 figure indicates that Negro males and females alike were four-fifths of the way up the ladder to the 100.0 which indicates the white position. Hiestand observes that if the occupational categories were finer, the comparisons would be still more disadvantageous to Negroes. In each of the broader classifications Negroes were concentrated in the less well-paying subcategories.

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