Race, Gender and Structural Inequalities in the Great Recession and the Recovery


Note: An earlier version of this article was delivered to the Working Class Studies Association conference in Chicago, June 25, 2011.

Despite a common belief that Americans live in an era without structural or institutionalized inequalities like racism or sexism, how working families have experienced the Great Recession and the recovery has depended in no small part on their race and gender. The inequity of hardship faced in the recent period resulted from structural inequalities embedded historically into the labor force, specifically, and social life generally. Here I am going to argue theoretically about how these inequalities reveal that race and gender determine in very practical ways specific aspects of economic life in the U.S. I will then look at some data from the past few years that bears those theoretical generalizations out.

Structural inequalities, bolstered by current incarnations of white supremacist or male supremacist ideologies, are key features of the capitalist system, and help to sustain and reproduce it. Still, race and gender are typically regarded as non-class social factors – when they are not downgraded to interpersonal phenomena. Even when viewed systemically or as historically specific systems of material conditions and ideological contradictions, race and gender are typically segregated from class abstractly or identified as derivative. They are viewed as non-class factors because they do not signify relationships of property, i.e. ownership (or lack thereof) of the means of production, extraction of surplus value, or self-conscious capitalist or working-class interests.

The political implications of viewing race, gender and class (or any other system or process of oppression) discretely in this manner, has proven disastrous for the working-class movement.

Historical roots

Thinking back, we can look at the McCarthy period as one historic conjuncture when such divisions were forced into the ways social movements thought about and actively addressed structural inequalities. And we are still living with the consequences today. Historians such as Clarence Lang, Robbie Lieberman, Gerald Horne, Rosemary Feurer as well as others have indirectly or directly argued that one of the great successes of the McCarthy period – from a right-wing, anti-working class point of view – was the forced political split among the social movements which organized political activity around issues of race, class, or gender in the U.S. Of course McCarthyites hated all progressive political movements and saw civil rights activists (who may have ideologically supported capitalism or a least distanced themselves from anti-capitalist movements) as potential subversives.

Still, the outcome was to produce a split in the working-class politics of the popular front period (1930s and 1940s). Without detailing the popular front in all of its complexity and geographical diversity, my general argument is that the working class' main goal in the popular front – political unity of diverse social forces, strata, and demographics – implied the ideological and practical inter-connectivity or intersectionality of determinant social factors like race, class and gender. Here it is worth noting that many leftist objections to the popular front – then and now – aside from the disapproval of the Soviet connection, typically lay in its refusal to exclusively emphasize the class basis of exploitation. Political thinking that insisted on the dialectical inter-connectivity of the the three social systems was regarded as liberal or the revisionist attempt to confuse the class question, potentially in alliance with the ruling class.

Dialectics of intersectionality

This split forced by McCarthyite tactics wasn't simply political, or a split between liberals and radicals, however. It was a theoretical one that wouldn't begin to be remedied until activists and intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s started again to talk about the intersection of non-class and class social factors, prompting a swift reaction again by the right in the so-called culture wars that included congressional hearings, attacks on universities, red-baiting and so on.

Without delving too much into the theory of intersectionality or tracing its historical formation, I want to emphasize the political implications of what I have described here as determining factors. In academic circles it is common in the cultural studies fields, especially when influenced by leftist politics, to see intersectionality as a basic theory of that discipline. Almost in the same breath, however, it is a well-worn practice to disparage Marxism as little more than economic determinism and view class as limited to a system or process of identity formation.

Criticisms of economic determinism have merit, but practical political experience in Marxist political movements reveals that such a claim is more often a diversion or a "straw man" argument – maybe innocent, maybe intentional. An analysis of capitalism that relies solely on interpreting the world through a class framework exclusively defined as economic, a methodology that is derived from economic determinism, strips the working class of its complexity and agency and discards political activity that is not directly related to relations of property as meaningless. More importantly, economic determinism does not account for social phenomena outside of narrowly defined  parameters of property relations. Tactics and strategy derived form such a perspective typically result in sectarian and narrow political activities.

Without worrying about the motives of the critics of Marxism on these grounds, more thorough analysis of materialism and Marx's understanding of capitalist social processes can be found in the work of Marxist scholars like David Laibman (Deep History) and Bertell Ollman (Dance of the Dialectic). They would argue effectively that Marx's famous injunction about the primary determinant under capitalism, most deliberately elaborated in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, was less a definitive and direct concrete statement than an abstraction that described a general process that necessarily must include all of the specific social relations within a particular moment. Simply put, Marx's comment wasn't meant to obscure the complicated interaction of social factors such as those I am attempting to describe in this paper.

Marxist critic E. San Juan, influenced by Gramsci and others, offered a clear way to understand this interaction. Race, i.e., racial formation, is a historical and systemic process. It is a "relatively autonomous effectivity" in which "defining the economic grounding does not adequately nor fully explain how it concretely functions in a specific formation." Race served an ideological/cultural function within a hegemonic strategy "to construct subjects  … whose actions will reproduce capitalist relations." It is a compilation of material, ideological and cultural practices that work both as a range and boundary line of common sense and a deliberately designed project. One goal is to produce a coalition, such as the type recently characterized by activist Bill Fletcher as the white nationalist majority Republican Party candidates will be seeking to form in opposition to President Obama.

A similar rethinking emerged in socialist feminist analysis of gender as a historically produced process. For example, historian Stephanie Coontz borrows Marx and Engels' explanation of the transformation of social relationships, or "modes of cooperation," under capitalism into "productive forces." Coontz explains that families, as sites of labor, expropriation, and construction of formative social identities (like gender), work as modes of cooperation. The most important kinds of labor humans do is not traditionally considered productive: nurturing or education, for example. The historical process of gender formation has produced ideological, cultural and material practices known as the gender division of labor, resulting in enduring unequal values and boundaries applied to the labor of men and women.

Thus, in the abstract, gender works also as a relatively autonomous ideological, cultural proactive to produce gendered subjects that will enable the reproduction of both capitalist relations and modes of cooperation that work toward that end. Like race, gender also works to reproduce itself, even when it is in contradiction to capitalist logics, and vice versa.

The Great Recession

How these processes work in the current moment can be in part expressed or understood through a look at the impacts of the Great Recession, a result of contradictions in the economic logic of capital in the current moment – specifically overproduction, anarchy of competition, financialization, or the immateriality of production of value, combined with more or less stagnant wage growth over the past two decades (see figure below).

By measuring the impact of the Great Recession (2007-1010) and the recovery on racially oppressed minorities and on women we can understand two basic features of the current moment: 1) levels of inequality deemed "normal" 2) and levels of inequality as they change during economic crisis. In addition, we should be able to infer how the response to the crisis was organized and whether or not it altered the impact of the recovery. In other words, did the recovery reflect the values, ideologies, cultural practices, etc. of the racial and gender formations prior to the crisis? Finally, we can examine some political implications.

Employment and job loss data, workforce segmentation, wages and benefits, and wealth are key factors that help measure and describe structural inequalities both quantitatively and qualitatively. (Note: underemployment, which officially includes part-time employment and multiple jobs required to make ends meet, adds another dimension to these economic questions but will not be dealt with here.)

To begin, in November 2007, the month before the Great Recession officially began, the national unemployment rate, stood at 4.7 percent; all adult men (4.1 percent), all adult women (4.1 percent), all teenagers (16.3 percent), whites (4.2 percent), Blacks (8.4 percent), and Hispanics (5.7 percent), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. American Indian unemployment stood at approximately 7.7 percent. Total economy-wide unemployment was about 7 million. These obvious structural inequalities preexisted in "normal" economic times.

Though women of workforce age outnumbered men by 8 million that year, men in the workforce outnumbered women by 11 million. (Other surveys taken in 2008 and 2009 give more parity to the two). African American women and Latinas tended to work in higher proportions that white women and the female population as a whole.

The gender wage gap in 2005, according to the 2006/7 State of Working America published by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), stood at 82 percent, i.e. women workers on average earned 82 cents of every dollar men earned. Women typically lose close to a half million dollars over the course of their working life due to the pay and benefits gap. The gap widened significantly when comparing men and women by race, with African American women and Latinas more likely (between one-third and two-fifths) earning in the lowest income brackets. Black families earned 59 cents, Latino families earned 62 cents, and American Indian/Alaska Native families made 59 cents for every dollar in income earned by a white family, according to the Applied Research Center (ARC). These measures of inequality can be extended to a parallel calculation of the receipt of employment benefits like health insurance and retirement savings or pensions and the value of those benefits.

(Black men and women and Latinos/as who were members of labor unions earned a "premium" that added between 2 and 4 dollars per hour to their pay packet, thus providing an economic mitigating factor for gender and racial disparity.)

In terms of wealth, as distinguished from wages or benefits, African American households were more than twice as likely in 2004 to hold zero net wealth than white households, according to EPI. About 30 percent of Black households as compared to 13 percent of whites. The median wealth gap between Black households as compared to whites in 2004 stood at 10 percent, i.e. middle-income Blacks held about 10 percent of the wealth of middle-income whites. EPI did not provide similar figures for Latinos, Asian Americans, American Indians, or racially mixed households. As EPI notes, "The vast and lasting disparity in the distribution of wealth between whites and blacks is indicative of the lasting legacy of discrimination."

In 2007, according to Census Bureau data, poverty in Black and Latino families was 22.1 percent and 19.7 percent, respectively.

The intersection of inequality by race and gender impacted households headed by women most. According to ARC, Almost 44 percent of single-mother headed Black families with children under 18 and 46.6 percent of single-mother headed Latino families with children under 18 were living in poverty, compared to 29.2 percent of similar white families.

Job security and benefits also reflect enormous inequalities. The concentration of people of color and women in certain occupations made them particularly vulnerable to economic crisis, specifically to layoffs, reduced hours, wages or benefits during the recession. According to ARC, 18 percent of people of color have retirement accounts, compared to 43.4 percent of whites. They are also less likely to be insured but more likely to be employed in highly physical work like construction, where injuries are more likely. In 2007, while 10.4 percent of white adults were uninsured, 19.4 percent of Blacks, 18.7 percent of Asians and 32.1 percent of Latinos had no insurance – either private, employer-based or government-sponsored.

Again this data paints a picture of structural inequality in a period of "normal" economic growth.

By October 2009, when unemployment peaked, the unemployment rates for adult men (10.7 percent) and whites (9.5 percent) rose in October. The jobless rates for adult women (8.1 percent), teenagers (27.6 percent), Blacks (15.7 percent), and Hispanics (13.1 percent). Today, total unemployment is double the 2007 figure.

African American unemployment would peak a few months later at 16.5 percent. Though in many African American majority urban areas the numbers would be much higher with few hopes for much improvement, except to leave. According to some estimates, the recession may be fueling a third great migration of African Americans back to the South. Unemployment among Latinos peaked at 13.2 percent; whites: 9.4 percent.

In 2009, official poverty jumped to 25.8 percent and 25.3 percent for African Americans and Latinos respectively. For whites, the poverty rate stood at under 10 percent at its peak, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

While some media reports reflected on a reversal of gender roles as men lost jobs during the recession, the true picture is much more complicated. Yes, women held about only three in 10 jobs in manufacturing and about 13 percent of construction jobs, according to the Center for Economic Policy Research, so they were less affected by the collapse of those sectors which in important ways drove the recession. Women also gained as the disproportionate benefiters of the continued growth of the healthcare sector during the recession, adding about 844,000 jobs, though a significant number in low-wage home healthcare work. In fact, it is worth observing that the one major growth sector during the recession depended largely on the structural inequality afforded by the gendered division of labor and the undervaluing of the work women have been assigned to realize higher profits.

With the health care exception, since the beginning of 2010, 81 percent of the jobs created in the recovery went to men. Men have gained back 263,000 manufacturing jobs and some in construction. When the recession began, CEPR found, men held only 23 percent of jobs in education and healthcare, but have gained 37 percent of jobs create in the past 13 months.

The state of Michigan in 2008 provides an interesting example of how the Great Recession impacted communities unequally. There, African Americans composed 14.2 percent of the auto work force, which at that time comprised about nine percent of the state's work force. The subsequent collapse of auto in the recession and the layoffs of thousands of workers and the renegotiation of contracts to put downward pressure on wages and benefits had a disproportionate impact on Black workers and families, accord to data compiled by the Applied Research Center in 2009. I am still waiting for the data on how the recovery of auto has reversed these numbers, if it has.

ARC also reported that 11 percent of Latinos work in the construction industry, which collapsed in the wake of the housing crisis and the credit crunch.

Significantly, higher proportions of African Americans and Latinos in service-related occupations also meant they were hardest hit by rising unemployment rates. For example, the proportion of Blacks and Latinos more than doubled, even tripled the percentage of whites in occupations like production, transportation, maintenance, construction, and moving jobs, which saw unemployment peak at around 15 and 16 percent. The proportion of Blacks and Latinos more than doubled the percentage of whites in service and low-wage sales and office occupations that peaked at close to 10 percent unemployment in the recession.

In addition African Americans and women are more likely to be found in public sector jobs, a portion of the labor force under vicious attack from right-wing ideologues and Republican Party policy makers. Here's a comment from a recent Department of Labor report on African American workers:

Black workers are more likely to be employed in the public sector than are either their white or Hispanic counterparts. In 2010, nearly 1 in 5 employed blacks worked for the government compared to 14.6 percent of whites and 11.0 percent of Hispanics. Conversely, blacks are less likely than Hispanics and nearly as likely as whites to work in the private sector, not including the self-employed. Few blacks are self-employed – only 3.8 percent reported being self-employed in 2010 – making them about half as likely to be self-employed as whites (7.4 percent).

Likewise women make up 57 percent of the public sector workforce overall, bearing the brunt of the steady losses of jobs in that sector and the political attack by Republicans. Since the recovery began and due to cuts demanded by Republican controlled governments, women lost two-thirds of the 284,000 public sector jobs lost, mostly in education and local government.

Combined with the general stagnation of real wages over the past 30 years, declining bargaining power of workers with the reduction of union density, this severe structural inequality had a huge impact on the onset of the recession in the first place. Analysis from several quarters, including David Harvey and our own Joe Sims linked the onset and severity of the recession to both the corrupt practices of Wall Street and structural inequalities, especially of race, in the economy. Disproportionately, banks targeted Blacks and Latinos for subprime loans. Disproportionately, those loans failed, driving the collapse of housing, credit, stocks, etc.

The "recovery"

CEPR notes that President Obama's recovery act provided some $60 billion in aid to states to prevent the worst budget disasters, and that was followed in 2010 with another $30 billion. Notably, however, Republican controlled state governments manufactured budget crises with both new rounds of tax cuts for the rich and vicious attacks on teachers and public sectors whom they blamed for the crisis. The recovery act also aimed to shore up the collapsing manufacturing sector and the construction sector with new investments in infrastructure, from roads and bridges to broadband and clean energy investments. Small business aid packages also were delivered.

Still, as the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity found, by November 2010, structural inequalities persisted for several months after the recovery officially began in early 2010. Unemployment among African Americans stood at 15.7 percent, Latinos 12.6 percent, whites, 8.8 percent. Women workers of these three racial groups seemed to do better than men, except for Latino women. Structurally lower wages for women workers could account for most of that difference, however.

One important data point, however, is the rate of procurement of government contracts under the recovery act. White business owners got 81.3 percent of the contracts worth 82.5 percent of government dollars. While this is slightly lower then their proportion in the U.S. economy as a whole, Black, Latino, and Asian owned businesses typically won proportionally far fewer recovery act government contracts. For example, while African Americans owned 7.1 percent of businesses in the country (about half of their representation in the population), Black-owned businesses got only 3.5 percent of recovery act contracts available. Latino owned businesses (8.3 percent of all U.S. businesses) got only 5.1 percent of the contracts. Asian American owned businesses (5.7 percent of the total) got a mere 3.3 percent.

Publicly, the general theoretical and political position of the Obama administration has been that a "rising tide lifts all boats." This metaphor typically is used to address class-specific symptomatic problems associated with capitalism's inherent inequalities. If we focus on class specific problems, the claim goes, because racial minorities and women are disproportionately represented in the working class, they will receive the benefits of such policies and white men won't be alienated by affirmative action policies they perceive as harming them or, at best, failing to address their specific concerns first as they are used to having done. Unfortunately, class-focused economic policy leaves structural inequalities by race and gender intact, preserving for the future the likelihood of experiences described above.

In less public settings, White House advisers understood the structural nature of the problem. Former White House economic adviser Christina Romer noted even before the Obama's inauguration that the infrastructure and state aid portions of the recovery act, along with its boost to anti-poverty programs, were designed to fall equally on those impacted by the recession. However, this hasn't been the case, primarily because of preexisting conditions (structural inequality) and because of the low-level of affirmative action embedded into the recovery act. Further, the size of the act was about $400 billion lower than what Romer had advocated during the transition period after the election, according to insider media accounts leaked after her departure.

Jared Bernstein, a former adviser to Vice President Biden, noted that political realism drove much of the economic policy, causing the White House to seek passage of a recovery act, and subsequent policy, it deemed politically possible rather than risking capital for larger or more aggressive interventions. The conditions of "political reality" are important to keep in mind, but also important is an understanding of the fact that inequality is part and parcel of that reality. The election of Obama delivered a blow to white racism and to the white nationalist united front, but it did not end structural inequality.

But if structural inequalities prompted the intensity of the recession (if not the recession itself), they are also driving the anemic recession, maybe even leading to a second dip. I think the focus on the lack of another massive stimulus package as detracted generally from this likelihood.

Structural inequalities require specific response

The political and theoretical implications of this data bears some examination. First, without going into too much detail, the broad movement that confronted and defeated the white nationalist united front needs to be mobilized for more than cosmetic changes. Will the large minority of whites (about 45 percent) who supported Obama's candidacy in 2008 also support structural change? The answer I think is no, and Obama doesn't seem willing to risk that, but an effort to make it happen needs to be made by the labor-led social movements. Structural inequalities have to be addressed. Serious thought has to be given to building popular support for an egalitarian program, avoiding typical leftist isolationism and defeatism and refusing to rely simply on the moral weight of the argument. New strategies and tactics have to be looked into.

Moving to a higher level of abstraction, this contradiction – structural inequality – reveals limits of capitalism that are ideologically and systematically insurmountable. I am not a doomsayer or a predictor of the end of capitalism under today's circumstance. The anti-capitalist movement, though growing in today's climate is fairly disorganized and small. By insurmountable I am suggesting that right-wing ideology and corporate aims are increasingly confronting working-class needs and aims for which few solutions or compromises seem available, as signaled most intensely by the fight over public sector workers, Medicare, Social Security, etc, as well as government paralysis on doing something about the ongoing jobs crisis.

According to labor activist Jonathan Tasini, corporate America is accumulating trillions of dollars waiting for better times and trying to continue to give the impression they are profitable concerns, when that money could be used to create jobs. It seems that sections of corporate America, in conjunction with their Republican allies, are holding the economy hostage for a greater say, greater control over the public coffers, public agencies, etc. Specifically, they may be targeting this administration, joining with Republican members of Congress to stall real action on recovery in order to win a more favorable balance of forces in the seat of power.

It seems increasingly clear that in addition to building and strengthening the anti-racist majority, labor and its social movement allies are demanding structural reforms that more directly challenge the power of corporate America, for example, tax reforms that are more progressive, single-payer health reform, Wall Street speculation taxes, regulations on carbon emissions, alternatives to Big Oil's domination of the energy sector, and more. However, few policies specifically designed to address the structural inequalities of race and gender appear at the top of the agenda.

Photo by PeoplesWorld.org/cc by 2.0/Flickr

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