There's been a few diaries today about unemployment among African Americans, so I decided to post my experience with the subject. My experience was humbling, and changed the way I think about the economics of race. (sorry, this diary is a little long)
Rewind back to spring, 2007. The Great Recession hadn't "officially" begun yet according to Wall Street economists, but here in Ohio the recession was already very real. Jobs were becoming scarce, especially in the manufacturing sector. LTV Steel closed down, Rubbermaid sent many of their jobs to China, GM in Lordstown was building fewer cars, the list goes on and on. Many of the employers who stayed in Ohio became greedy and opportunistic, because they had the upper hand in this situation and they knew it. Luckily, I was employed by the war, cutting Humvee doors out of armor plate to send to the Army and Marines. I was employed by high gas prices too, cutting railroad parts when there weren't any orders going to the military.
My co-workers elected me union steward for the nightshift. My shift was made up of mostly older men, about two thirds of them were black. Though we came from different backgrounds we learned to trust each other, which is necessary in a dangerous job in the steel industry. One day the boss introduced me to a new hire, an older black man, who I will refer to as Mike. (name changed) At first, Mike struggled somewhat adjusting to his job moving stacks of 24-foot long steel plate with an overhead crane, which is an entry-level position, but also a difficult, dangerous one. I liked Mike so I offered to train him on the crane as he helped me on my machine.
Mike had lots of interesting stories, he talked in his thick southern accent about growing up in Alabama. His family were sharecroppers, (and yes, he had to explain to me what that was.) I learned in school about the existence of Segregation and Jim Crow, about Rosa parks and drinking fountains labeled "Colored". But Mike talked about his friends being beaten up, about white people throwing rocks and bottles at them from cars. "They was for real" Mike said, "They wanted to kill us!" This was not the sterilized version of Black History had been taught in my nearly-all-white high school every February, and it was an eye-opener for me. He talked about being a mailman in Detroit, but since he came to Ohio, Mike had trouble finding long-term employment, and my co-workers had had a theory as to why that was the case: "It's his raggedy mouth" one guy said, referring to Mike's thick accent. "They'll walk him right out of here before you know it." But Mike was a good worker, so I thought there was no way they would fire him just because of his background, just because of his race.
The boss started to complain to me about Mike a lot. Since I was helping to train Mike I worked with him to address those problems, to improve his skills on the crane, but the boss's complaints kept coming. One day I came in, and my boss, the dayshift boss, plant manager and HR lady called me over to the office. They told me that Mike was going to be "let go" in two days, conveniently a Friday. They said it was for "poor work performance", and mentioned that Mike had brought a discrimination lawsuit against a previous employer, and that he was a "troublemaker". I was only notified because I was the union steward, and it was made clear that if I told Mike or anyone else, I could be terminated as well. So the next two days I had to work with Mike, and he knew something was wrong. It was extremely hard to keep my mouth shut. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I pleaded with the boss to keep Mike, but it was a done deal. I called the union office, and they told me there was nothing they could do, that Mike could file a grievance with the local after he was fired, but it was unlikely that he could keep his job.
That Friday Mike came in, and the boss sent him packing before he could even get to the locker room. Mike asked me "Did you know? Did you know?" and I couldn't lie. I had to tell him I knew all that time and couldn't do anything. I told Mike I would do whatever I could to help, and gave him my phone number. But he said he's heard it before and never called me, never filed a grievance at the local, so I filed one on his behalf. One my co-workers came up to me and said "You know why that man was fired."
"I know now", I said. "He was fired because he's black."
"And that raggedy mouth." the guy added, "No way they would let him stay here." I thought back to all the new guys that got fired since I became steward. Sure enough, most of them were black, and more of the white guys stayed. That day the men I worked with talked about how hard it is for a black man to get a job, to make an honest living. Until then, having grown up in a little town that was 99% white, I naively thought that racial discrimination in the workplace was a thing of the past, that it wasn't a widespread problem. But it happened right there in front of me, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do. I told the guys that how angry and frustrated I was that my attempts to stop such an injustice from occurring were futile.
"Don't you forget what happened here, at this place, on this day." one guy said. I'll never forget what happened that day, when a man who wanted an honest job was turned away because of his race and his accent.