Joint Center President Spencer Overton delivered the seventh biennial lecture at Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School. The lecture,“Racial Equality and the Future of Work,” focused automation, the rise of “gig-economy,” and race. See the full remarks below
“Racial Equality and the Future of Work”
Remarks of Spencer Overton
Seventh Biennial Lecture
Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights
Wayne State University Law School
Friday, October 5, 2018
Good evening. It is great to be home, and it is very special to be at Wayne State. Over the years, Wayne State has been central in the economic mobility of African Americans in Detroit. Both of my parents are Wayne State graduates, and had they not had the opportunities provided here, I certainly would not have the opportunities I enjoy today. And so, President Wilson and Dean Bierschbach, thank you for your leadership in building upon this legacy and leading Wayne State into the future.
Thanks to all of you for taking a Friday night and coming out. I’m just so appreciative to see so many friends: from my church at Plymouth UCC; from Judge Keith’s biological and legal family; from the legal and civic community like Mayor and Judge Archer; and so many others.
Thanks to my mother’s many friends who came. I’m also appreciative to my many family members who came out in support. I want to take a minute to hold up just one family member—my father-in-law Oreese Collins. Oreese has been committed to this community from the beginning. He also has two degrees from Wayne State—one in math and the other in urban planning. He was the purchasing director of the City of Detroit under Coleman Young and he had many other leadership roles. Through all of the years, he’s been ethical, and committed to the city and to quality work. He is incredibly smart but also low-key—he doesn’t need to be the center of attention.
I’m very thankful to have him as my wife’s father, as my father-in-law, and as a wonderful grandfather to my two boys. Thank you Oreese—your entire family loves you. Now, I want to turn to another father figure—Judge Damon J. Keith. He has been instrumental in my life. I was fortunate enough to clerk for Judge Keith, and it was an experience of a lifetime. He gave us clerks a great deal of responsibility, and he was very gentle in guiding us back to the right path when we made beginners’ mistakes. I learned so much working for him, and I also gained a lot of confidence. Working for Judge Keith gave me a front row seat to see both good lawyering and bad lawyering, and it also gave me exposure to how to make big decisions that have big consequences.
I’ve also gained so much personally from Judge Keith. It is the fifth day of the month, and this morning I read Proverbs 5 because I learned long ago that this is a practice of Judge Keith. I also learned from watching Judge Keith’s love for his wife, Dr. Rachel Keith—who was also super smart and professionally accomplished in her own right. Twenty-two years ago, I married the former Leslie Collins not far from here in Plymouth United Church of Christ. In my talk today, I want to make three simple points. All of these points apply to our nation as a whole, but they also have special relevance right here in Detroit.
First, in our history as a nation, work has shaped race, and race has shaped work. Work and race have shaped the world in which we live today.
Second, right now work is changing. Technology is driving great changes to work, from automation to the gig economy.
Third: the policy decisions about work that we make right now will determine whether racial disparities expand in the future, or whether we can reduce or eliminate them.
I. Race and Work Shape Our Current Nation Work and economics have shaped race in the United States, and we could tell this story through Judge Keith and his family.The European demand for sugar, and later molasses, rum, tobacco, rice, and indigo drove the desire for cheap labor in the New World, and the legal creation of slavery based on race satisfied this demand. Between 1492 and 1776, only 15 percent of those who survived crossing the Atlantic and settled in the New World were European. 85 percent were African. As you know, slavery also shaped the original U.S. Constitution that was ratified by the thirteenth state, Rhode Island, in 1790.
We talk a lot about innovation today, but just three years after Rhode Island ratified the U.S. Constitution, innovation would give the new nation a strong economic foundation and increase the demand for Black slaves. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a machine that sped up the process of removing seeds from cotton fiber, and cotton eventually became the number one export from the United States. The British textile industry and the American financial and shipping industries depended on cotton grown by slaves. This expanded the demand for slaves to work in cotton fields, and by 1850 over 70 percent of the slaves working in agriculture were on cotton plantations.
According to Trevor Coleman and Peter Hammer’s book, Crusader for Justice, Judge Keith’s grandparents were slaves. Just to repeat, Judge Keith’s father and mother had parents who were slaves. Innovation continued throughout the 1800s and after the Civil War and Reconstruction Amendments. The continuing industrial revolution started to automate farming and reduce the demand for labor, while increasing the demand for labor in factories—particularly in urban areas. This innovation shifted wealth and opportunity—and led to the Great Migration.
In 1915, Judge Keith’s father, Perry Keith, migrated from Atlanta to Detroit for Henry Ford’s $5 a day wage.
Two years later, his wife, Annie Keith, and their five children came to Detroit, and five years after that Judge Keith was born on July 4, 1922. Despite the new opportunities in the North, in Detroit race was used to preserve a cheap pool of talented Black labor for menial jobs, and to reserve more lucrative positions for white families. In 1930, for example, Judge Keith’s 21-year old brother Perry Jr. was a chauffeur. Judge Keith attended Howard Law School in the late 1940s when a legal revolution was going on that would challenge this racial economic order. But even though he had a front row seat, Judge Keith personally experienced the economic implications of this system that relegated Blacks to menial jobs. In 1949, as a graduate of both college and law school who was studying for the bar, Judge Keith was working in a job scrubbing toilets at the Detroit News. Throughout his life and career, he would continue to personally experience the effects of the relegation of Blacks to menial jobs. In 1991, while serving as national chairman of the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, a hotel guest assumed Judge Keith was a valet, tossed a 69-year old Judge Keith his car keys and ordered, “Here boy, park this car!” Judge Keith used his appointment to the federal bench to react to the interplay of race and economics. You may know some of his big cases from the early 1970s.
In the Stamps case, Detroit Edison kept Blacks in jobs like washing cars, chauffeuring, cleaning floors, and operating elevators, and used black dots on job applications to identify Blacks and kept them out of more lucrative jobs. The labor union was complicit in preserving certain jobs for whites. Judge Keith ruled against Detroit Edison. Other economic factors intersected with race. Some talked about the need to preserve their property values and good schools, while others saw segregated housing and segregated schools. Judge Keith was at the center of it in cases like Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac, where Pontiac was about 25% Black but the schools were nearly 100% segregated. Pontiac explained that segregated housing patterns naturally resulted in segregated neighborhood schools. Judge Keith ordered busing to remedy a segregated school system.
We all know the rest: globalization, deindustrialization, white flight, blight, racial polarization, political dysfunction, an eroding tax base, and other economic and racial factors interacted to shape Detroit and America.<
My overall point is that whether the driver is the demand for sugar, tobacco, cotton, cheap consumer goods, or good paying jobs with minimal competition from Blacks, work has shaped race, and race has shaped work.
Along the way innovation has played a critical role, whether it is the cotton gin, the automobile, or the interstate highway system that facilitated flight. Race and economics have been interconnected.
And while I use Black and white because it is a relationship many of us in Detroit understand, racial equality and economics is not just a Black and white story. Manifest Destiny in moving across this continent meant Indian Removal from much of the country and relegation to reservations. The U.S. obtained California and other territories through the treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo after a war with Mexico, but the U.S. relegated Latinos who lived in the territories to second-class status. The Bracero programs were used to import Mexican workers, but Operation Wetback was used to deport them. Railroads and other companies imported Chinese labor, but the subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited further migration. And we know what’s happening today. These things are all connected to this story of racial equality, economics, and work.
II. Work is Changing Now I want to move to my second point: that work is changing right now. We’re in the midst of an economic transformation. Technologies are moving out beyond Silicon Valley, and we’re seeing the implications in our everyday lives across the United States. Grocery stores are installing self-checkout lanes. Manufacturing plants are increasingly using industrial robots. Retail is being transformed by Amazon. Threatened by the emergence of new models like Uber and Airbnb, traditional companies are rushing to reduce costs and increase efficiencies by automating their processes. And with Detroit leading the way, driverless trucks, buses, and cars will soon be commonplace. Various interacting technologies drive these changes. Artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics. Widespread access to smartphones. The Internet of Things – like this Fitbit on my wrist that tells me how many more steps I need to take—means that innovation is not just about Silicon Valley coders who capture us with attention to a screen, but that the Internet is allowing us to navigate in the real world. The 5th Generation of wireless technology—which will enable us to transfer more data faster—will enhance innovation and changes. These changes may have many benefits to consumers—I still need to get a few more steps in today—but there are questions. With the new self-checkout lanes at the grocery store, what happens to the cashiers? Sure, we can repatriate manufacturing and produce goods for less money than producing them in China and shipping them over here, but what if we no longer need 500 workers but only 50 due to automation? What do autonomous vehicles mean for truck drivers, bus drivers, and taxi drivers?
Right now, the common discussion about technology and work is limited. One extreme argues that robots will replace most workers, and that this will mean either mass unemployment and poverty, or that we’ll all get a check from the government and have a lot more leisure time while robots attend to our every need. The other camp says that just as the reduction in agricultural jobs during the industrial revolution was met by an increased demand for work in factories, there will be many new jobs and increased growth in the economy. I think this debate is limited, because it doesn’t take into account the relationships between work and race. We could have overall economic growth but increased racial inequality. For example, the current changes in technology could have a significant impact on Black workers. My organization, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, found that 27% of all African American workers are concentrated in 30 jobs at high risk to automation. For example, compared to white workers, Black workers are over one-and-a-half times more likely to be cashiers, cooks, and fast food workers. Black workers are over three times more likely than white workers to be bus drivers, taxi drivers, chauffeurs, and security guards. These jobs—to which we have often been relegated—may no longer exist.
Even at “full employment,” Black unemployment rates are already almost twice as high as white unemployment rates. The displacement of only half of Black workers in the 30 jobs at high risk to automation could triple the African-American unemployment rate. If we do nothing, automation could increase racial disparities. Now, this doesn’t all just cut one way. Economic disruption will eliminate jobs and create new jobs. Granted, e-commerce companies like Amazon reduce the sales and the number of employees at traditional retail stores, and this is a big employment source for Black folks—particularly young Black people. On the other hand, however, Amazon also creates new jobs by hiring workers at fulfillment centers and in other parts of its distribution network. One study by Dr. Michael Mandel found that from 2007 to 2016, the general retail sector lost 51,000 jobs while the e-commerce sector added 355,000 jobs. The question is how we can ensure Detroiters are getting a healthy number of those jobs. How can we ensure that e-commerce retailers build a healthy number of fulfillment centers in places like Detroit? Autonomous vehicles are another area of opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, African Americans disproportionately work as drivers, and so we must address their future employment prospects. But we also have to tackle the problem of a lack of transportation as an obstacle to getting to work. Properly deployed, autonomous vehicles could lower the cost of transportation and provide the mobility Black people need to get to and from work. Even before we get to autonomous vehicles, we’ve got to tackle the new opportunities and challenges with the gig economy.
On one hand, opportunities like driving for Uber and Lyft provide an important stream of income for Black workers. On the other hand, African American workers are overrepresented in these types of independent contractor arrangements that lack benefits, and many of those in these positions are looking for full-time work with benefits. There are those who would argue that race is irrelevant to the future of work. They would argue that the threat of automation to work is not a racial issue, but is simply an issue about low-income Americans and less-educated Americans. Here’s why they are wrong. Black workers face unique challenges that make them particularly vulnerable during labor market transitions. Implicit bias in evaluation and hiring make it more difficult for Black workers to transition to new jobs. Limited social networks make it less likely that Black workers will learn about a new job or have an inside track in securing it. Residential segregation and transportation challenges make getting to job interviews or to and from work especially onerous for African Americans. And a median household net worth that is one tenth that of whites means Black families face particular challenges paying for monthly household expenses during extended periods of unemployment. Duke economist Sandy Darity says there is another reason that race is relevant. The very reason that Blacks have traditionally been in menial jobs that will be the first to be automated—the cooks, fast food workers, retail sales, drivers, security guards—is because of discrimination. It is the discrimination that had Judge Keith mopping bathroom floors at the Detroit News as a college and law school graduate in 1949, and the implicit bias that presumably caused the gentleman to toss him keys 40 years later and assume he was a valet. We’ve seen the study that shows that resumes with “white” sounding names are more likely to be interviewed than those with “Black” sounding names, even when the resumes are identical. Some of your good friends at work may say “why should we care about race and the future of work?”
They would argue that putting food on the table is the concern of most Americans, and that we shouldn’t make any special efforts on behalf of people of color and we shouldn’t be concerned about racial disparities growing. That’s just a special interest, provincial concern. Here’s why that’s wrong. Eliminating racial disparities helps the nation. Ensuring that communities of color have skills expands the skilled workforce, ensures companies have the talent they need to be most productive, and makes the U.S. more competitive globally. And this is real money. A Kellogg Foundation report shows that ending discriminatory practices in Michigan alone would yield an additional $8 billion in consumer spending per year, and that state and local governments would receive an additional $1.5 billion in tax revenues. As Rip Rapson of the Kresge Foundation and Amy Liu of Brookings wrote recently, “places with high racial exclusion experience slower economic growth [and] squandered talent and entrepreneurial growth.” Now, I can hear some of my friends—many of them African Americans—understandably skeptical about innovation and the future of work. They may believe that increased racial disparities are an inevitable consequence of innovation. “Look…they would say. You started off by saying we were 85% of those who survived the voyage across the Atlantic, and that was when we could be used as slaves. Now we’re only 13% of the population, and automation threatens to take even the few low-paying jobs we had before. Just like Native Americans have now dwindled to just 1% of the U.S. population, others will not invest in our communities but just confine us to reservations with limited opportunities and let us wither on the vine over time.” I understand this perspective. I came to the first Crain’s Homecoming a few years ago, and I was initially impressed. Detroit came out of bankruptcy in just a year, it has attracted $7 billion in private market investments, and it has reframed its image as a strong, creative, scrappy, and innovative city. But when I talked to a few of my old friends about this, they noted that Black entrepreneurs were not at the table – that they were not in the loop. Much of the growth and prosperity is enjoyed by new residents in a central business district, rather than neighborhoods and communities around the city. No doubt—the entire city benefits from an enhanced tax base and supporting jobs—but the vast majority of Detroiters don’t want to indirectly benefit from growth or be bit players in their own hometown. I thought about it, and my friends were right—there were not a lot of Black entrepreneurs featured. There are a lot of neighborhoods that have not seen growth. But I still don’t think increased inequality is an inevitable component of automation.
One of the reasons so many of us love the movie Black Panther is because of the Afrofuturistic nation of Wakanda. In the movie, Wakanda is not a broken country that must be fixed according to a western imperialist model. The goal is not to be an imitation of France or the UK or the U.S. Instead, Wakanda is significantly more prosperous, innovative, and technologically advanced than other nations. This powerful concept is not just in comic books. In real life, Black workers have discerned the future and strategically positioned themselves for relevance and success. Black female NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, depicted in the movie Hidden Figures, speculated that an incoming IBM computer would displace her team of mathematicians in the 1960s.
In anticipation, Dorothy Vaughan learned Fortran – and she didn’t just learn it herself. She taught Fortran to her entire team. When they brought in the IBM, NASA’s Black female mathematicians were prepared to take over new jobs operating the computer. We also see this same thing happening in other parts of the world. When Judge Keith was appointed to the federal bench, Singapore and South Korea were developing countries – which some people would call “third world.” Through strategic planning, focused effort, capital investment, and investment in the education and skills of their people, Singapore is now a financial center of Asia. South Korea is the home to leading tech companies like Samsung. In 1991, when the man threw the keys at Judge Keith, Estonia became free of Soviet occupation, and was in ruins. Food was rationed. Inflation skyrocketed to over 1000 percent. In 1992, a 32-year-old historian was elected prime minister, and focused on fostering an innovative business culture. Half of Estonians had telephone service, and rather than install an analog telephone system, they skipped straight to a digital network designed for them. Every school in Estonia was online by 1998, and in 2000 parliament enshrined Internet access as a human right. Estonia became a center for global investment, and it has built an innovation economy, which has produced notable companies like Skype. Its GDP of over $25,000 per capita is 15 times what it was at the fall of the Soviet Union. Some skeptics will say that “those aren’t Black countries.” But Rwanda is a Black country. When I was clerking for Judge Keith—in 1994—Rwanda was undergoing a brutal genocide where over 800,000 people were murdered. Since then, Rwanda has rebuilt itself.
The objective was for Rwanda to move from an agricultural economy, and leapfrog over an industrial phase, and go straight to a knowledge-based economy. All of Rwanda’s 30 districts are connected with fiber optics. GDP growth averaged about 8 percent per year. Gender equality has been a key focus, and women make up a larger percentage of leaders in the public and private sector in Rwanda than the U.S. While inequality in the U.S. has increased in the last 15 years, inequality in Rwanda has decreased. One of my friends from the Obama campaign, Alec Ross, wrote a book called The Industries of the Future. Alec was a tech policy guy on the campaign, and during the Administration, he was the tech policy lead at the Department of State and traveled the world and observed these countries. He talks a lot about South Korea, Singapore, Rwanda, and Estonia, and the information above is from his book. I encourage you to check it out. This is a key moment in our nation and in Detroit. Great change is happening in our economy. No one is entrenched – there is a new frontier of opportunity that has not been staked out or claimed by one racial group.
III. Policy Decisions About Work Today Shape the Future of Race. This all goes to my third point: Depending on policy choices we make now, racial disparities can grow, or they can be eliminated.; How do we bake racial equity into the design so it is not just an afterthought? We’ve seen companies like Amazon grow quickly and transform industries. We’ve seen the same thing happen in places like Singapore, South Korea, Estonia, and Rwanda. How can we do the same thing in Conant Gardens in Detroit, where my parents grew up and where I lived until I was almost eight? How can we turn this disruption into opportunity? Well, these are the questions we’re working on at the Joint Center, the think tank I run. While the purpose of an advocacy group is to respond to the day-to-day news cycle, our job at the Joint Center is to plot out the future – to think about the next 5-15 years. While we’re really just staffing up and starting on these very big questions, we don’t have all of the answers yet. I don’t think anyone does. We do, however, have some key principles in starting to think about this work.
First, black workers must acquire new skills that are increasingly in-demand locally. Because industries and job openings are highly dependent on locale, what is in demand in Memphis will differ from the skills demand in Detroit. Also, related to that, local implementation is key. We need to coordinate community leaders, local government, employers, labor unions, and educational institutions by identifying in-demand jobs in the local economy, developing methods to deliver skills to residents, creating clear pathways to jobs, and helping new workers find success. Economies in predominately Black cities and counties grow if local leaders can effectively implement strategies to build a strong workforce. Another key element is what some call shared prosperity. One component is regionalism. Recognizing that we must work together. We have to have regional transportation plans, and regional strategies to cultivate skilled talent in Detroit so that everyone in the region can benefit from that talent. It also means we’ve got to develop both the Central Business District and the neighborhoods. Judge Keith has friendships across the spectrum—and he really embodies this notion of us working together.
Lifelong Learning is a platitude, but it is true. Constant innovation means that all workers—from the manufacturing worker to the accountant and radiologist—must constantly acquire and refresh in-demand skills. We also need employer accountability. Employers eager to fill open positions are prone to pointing a finger of blame at their workforce, arguing that employees are responsible for obtaining the right skills and closing the skills mismatch. Too often, companies use this talking point to deflect responsibility when they automate and displace employees. Companies that benefit from automation should not shift the burdens to workers who are the least equipped to bear them. Instead, companies should take their fair share of responsibility, and create a culture that affirmatively anticipates change and helps employees plan out and acquire new skills, including paying for training.
Another key concept—The Future of Work is Now. While the future of work involves strengthening the educational system for children, many initiatives implicitly write off parents—and that’s wrong. We must invest in both strong K-12 education for children and education and skills training for parents. Moving parents from $25,000 per year service jobs to $60,000 per year skilled jobs would have a tremendous impact on wealth generation in Black communities.
We also need to end the Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. DuBois Debate. Black economic security is not a binary choice between trade school versus college, or blue collar versus white collar. The choice is never mutually exclusive. We must absolutely fight the implicit bias of teachers who track Black children away from their full potential. At the same time, we deprive millions of Black workers dignity and opportunity if we limit success to a B.A. or the N.B.A. While degrees are essential in today’s economy, there are still jobs that prioritize critical thinking and technological skills over diplomas. The Black community must compete for information technology, advanced manufacturing, and a host of other good jobs that do not require a B.A. We have to also convert new skills into new businesses. Automation can lower costs of entry and open up a new class of entrepreneurs. For example, 3D printing may allow a local Black company to supply auto parts to a manufacturing company more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently than a supplier in China. Robotic bricklaying may empower a Black bricklayer to start a business with minimal overhead. A local analytics firm may pump out car part data that has great value to the auto industry. The evolution of technology gives rise to new possibilities every day.
IV. Conclusion This is an incredibly important moment for racial equality. To ignore this opportunity is to risk the mass displacement of Black workers to automation and expand racial inequality. We have to grapple with the question of improving neighborhoods—it is inextricably tied to the question of the future of work. This is a moment for fresh starts, to create new opportunities, and to disrupt entrenched race-based socio-economic hierarchy. Singapore, Estonia, and Rwanda have embraced innovation to leapfrog ahead—we can do the same thing in Detroit. Indeed, Detroit can lead the nation not just in industry, not just in music, and not just in recovering from municipal debts. Detroit can lead our nation in grappling with and improving this relationship between economics and race that we’ve been struggling with since the beginning of our nation. Thank you, and I’m open for any questions.