A Time of Monsters: The New Nadir and the Crisis of the Black Worker

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We currently reside in what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called “A Time of Monsters.” Exacerbated by the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic, the Black working classes continue to struggle under what Black Studies scholar Sundiata Cha-Jua has dubbed “the New Nadir.” For this New Nadir, the lowest point in the socioeconomic conditions for African Americans, the transformation to financialized global racial capitalism has occurred through three interlocking processes: globalization of production and markets that have restructured how we work; federal, state, and local neoliberal social policies; and financialization. This combination amounts to an anti-Black-working-class agenda, reinforced through the underemployment of Black workers—deindustrialization and the dominance of service sector, unskilled, unstable, low-wage labor—racialized mass incarceration, a resurgence in state terrorism and private racial hate crimes, new disenfranchisement, political fragmentation via gentrification, and social humiliation. As a result, the dwindling material resources make current attempts at Black grassroots social movements relatively ineffective. With little social-movement progress, Blacks experience a drastic devolution in our roles in the political economy, social status, and cultural representation.

The disparate labor conditions of Black working-class people highlight the ever-increasing strain on their day-to-day survival. While 42 percent of US workers currently make less than $15 an hour, more than half of Black workers make that little (less than $30,000 a year before taxes). On average, Black men and women make $0.71 and $0.63, respectively, for every dollar paid to white men. Cashiers and retail, food prep, and food service workers contain the greatest concentration of workers below $15. Accordingly, these jobs, or six out of ten of the largest occupations with median wages less than $15, rank among the jobs with the largest growth potential in the labor market over the next ten years!

Black workers’ wealth is so weak that any higher costs force them to scramble for more work, regardless of quality or stability. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the median net wealth of Black families is just $24,100, the lowest among any racial group today. In comparison, white families’ median net wealth is $188,200! Because of such weak wages, working-class families often accrue insurmountable debt by charging survival needs to credit cards, with payment problems arriving just in time for the Federal Reserve to raise the interest rates on loans. Additionally, the rise of predatory buy-now, pay-later (BNPL) programs like Klarna, Zip/Quadpay, Afterpay, and Paypal Pay disproportionately target the Black working classes. The companies hire bourgeois celebrities like rapper A$AP Rocky and actress Keke Palmer to promote the exploitative services as “cool” alternatives to credit cards. However, studies prove that these companies only deepen debt for people stuck in generational poverty. Besides hidden fees and late-payment charges, BNPLs also secretly report to credit bureaus and can send your account to collections whenever they want to do so—consumers have no protection from such exploitative practices.

Housing costs account for a significant strain on Black workers’ precarious job prospects. Since the federal eviction moratorium ended, landlords took control of rent gouging. According to Realtor.com, in the 50 largest US metro areas, median rent rose an astounding 19.3 percent in one year, with Miami topping the list with a 49.8 percent increase! Though the national discourse has focused on energy costs, rent gouging during an inflationary period drastically undercuts working-class people’s capacity to breathe. In fact, because housing costs make up one-third of the consumer price index that measures inflation, spiraling inflation will not subside until housing prices drop immensely.

Consequently, Black workers are forced to supplement weak wages with temporary jobs. A February, 2022 report, titled “Temp Workers Demand Good Jobs” revealed that Black workers make up 12.2 percent of the American workforce, but nearly 25 percent of all temporary help and staffing agency workers. In manufacturing and warehousing, 33 percent of temp workers are Black, double the proportion of full-time Black workers in the industry. Manufacturing’s reputation for having higher wages does not benefit Black temp workers—they are paid on average 21 percent less than white temp workers across that sector.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s epic job destruction—similar in ways to the 2008 Great Recession—accelerated the unemployment and underemployment crisis for Black workers. The employment to population ratio (EPOP) provides a critical lens into the crisis of Black labor. This tool measures the share of a specific group of people with a job. Black workers suffered a 17.8 percent loss through unemployment in the first three months of the pandemic, compared to 15.5 percent for white workers. Black women suffered the greatest losses at 18.8 percent. By April, 2020, less than half of the adult Black population was employed. Black workers are less likely to weather an economic storm as vicious as COVID because they have fewer earners in the family, lower incomes, lower liquidity and generational wealth, and less opportunity for livable-wage jobs than their white counterparts.

The underemployment labor market pushes many Black workers—particularly women—out of the labor force altogether. Labor-force participation for Black women plunged during the pandemic to a thirty-year low of 59.5 percent (a conservative estimate when you consider market fluctuation during an economic downturn), meaning that nearly half of Black women in the United States were not employed nor actively seeking work in the labor market. Typically, Black women have held higher labor-force participation rates than Black men; however, the lackluster federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic further destabilized working-class homes. As the federal government initiated a de facto herd-immunity protocol, the uncontained virus closed schools, daycare centers, and recreational spaces. This restricted many working-class mothers from employment outside the home, as they had to provide childcare for their families. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both Black men and women are twice as likely as their white peers to report that they are unable to reenter the labor force because of childcare or other family issues. Combined with entrenched racial discrimination, Black working-class women who left the labor force do not have a lucrative job market with stability, livable wages, and benefits waiting to attract them back.

Access to technology and training has also restricted Black working-class people from breaking through low-wage service-sector labor. As blue-collar labor shut down (with many of those jobs to never return), white-collar labor moved mainly to working from home in 2020. Black working-class people have been largely unable to take advantage of this option, because their jobs are necessarily “in-person,” or due to a lack of access to computers or the internet. PEW Research Center reported in 2020 that 34 percent of Black adults do not have consistent internet access, while 30.6 percent of Black households with one or more children aged 17 or younger lack home internet service. 23 percent of Black people are “smartphone-only” internet users, where data caps and restrictive storage space pose limitations on homework, job applications, or paid labor. Lastly, nearly 50 percent of employers eliminate Black job seekers from contention based solely on predetermined algorithms in résumé screening software. The algorithms typically disqualify applicants who have a six-month gap in employment history, conviction for a felony, or missing key words in the applications. This tactic of racial oppression designates many Black job seekers as “hidden workers”—those who are qualified with skills for labor but are screened out for various reasons.

With resources dwindling at an alarming rate, the underemployment of Black workers is the most immediate threat to the long-term viability of the African American majority. Although the Amazon unionization victory is widely celebrated, it remains an outlier in a precarious struggle for livable wage labor. Unions generally neglect racial oppression inside and outside the unions, and they are politically and socially weak where most Black people reside: the South. Therefore, as Marxist scholar Hal Baron noted, the Black working class must analyze and conceptualize our current position in the political economy by pooling our resources, developing political education materials and spaces, and shifting towards an offensive strategy for survival, pending revolution.

Augustus Wood is an assistant professor in the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is a scholar of African American history, political economy, and working-class social movements.

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