The Roots of Urban Decline: An Historical Analysis of African American Workers in the Industrial Labor Force of Buffalo, New York, 1850-1980
James Lyndell Cotton
Thesis DT 3.5 2005 C688
vii, 122 leaves ; 28 cm.
This project seeks to expand the debate on the historical and contemporary factors confronting the economic and social development of African American urban communities. One of the main issues this project attempts to analyze is how race shapes the social order of American capitalist development – particularly as it pertains to the role of African American workers and the development of Black communities. Consequently, this study will interrogate some of the ways in which racial subordination has been institutionalized into the fabric of American society.
A new generation of social scientists, led by William Julius Wilson, has presented evidence showing that African Americans are concentrated in sectors of the economy undergoing rapid decline. Emphasizing changing structural conditions in the American economy, these studies argue that African Americans currently represent the most vulnerable segment of the American labor force because the onslaught of deindustrialization crippled the position of Black workers in heavy industries and Black workers’ lack of skills in technologically-based industries has kept them outside of growing economic sectors. There, the recent analysts content that advanced capitalism has undercut the economic opportunities available to Black workers, which has affected adversely the stability of African American urban communities.
But by only connecting the causes of the socioeconomic condition of Black urban workers and communities to the changing economic patterns that have happened during the last forty years, this new vision offers a distorted assessment of African American urban communities as they are bereft of a serious historical analysis on how past racial inequalities have shaped the development of Black communities. This thesis will attempt to articulate the nexus between the past and continuing forces impacting Black urban workers by illuminating the ways in which African Americans have been the most vulnerable sector of the American labor force since their incorporation into the industrial labor force. It also will explore how the problems confronting Black urban workers and communities are not especially recent.
This study argues that the socioeconomic decline of African American urban workers and communities during the postindustrial era was caused by the recent restructuring of the American economy and the consequent spatial redevelopment of metropolitan areas as well as the institutionalization of Black workers as a sub-proletariat in the most technologically backwards jobs. While the flight of industrial capital from urban centers aggravated the social dislocations in Black inner-city communities during the postindustrial period, the racially discriminatory practices of employers and labor unions have made Black workers the most vulnerable segment of the American labor force to these shifts in American capitalist development. Thus, the institutionalization of Black workers as a sub-proletariat conditioned their drastic downfall during the postindustrial era.
The methodology of this project is a case study of the African American community in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo, New York is a prototypical site for a study of the economic and social development of Black communities in the postindustrial period. The structural changes that have occurred in Buffalo’s economic and demographic bases over the last fifty years are similar to what has happened in dozens of other rustbelt cities located in the Northeast and Midwest. A study of Buffalo, therefore, can inform the historical understanding of Black urban environments in the postindustrial era.