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Race Inequality, Class Inequality

By Arthur MacEwan | November/December 2023

In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO, an overwhelmingly white audience:

Our [the Negro people’s] needs are identical with labor’s needs, decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community...

The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed...

Together we can be architects of democracy in a South now rapidly industrializing. Together we can re-tool the political structure of the South...Together we can bring about the day when there will be no separate identification of Negroes and labor.

King was making an appeal, based on the common interests of most African Americans and most working people of other races. He was arguing that such an alliance, effectively a white-Black alliance, would require Americans to abandon racism, at least in political and social struggles.

The harm that racism does to African Americans is severe and well known. (See Arthur MacEwan, “The Economic Conditions of Black People in the United States,” D&S, September/October 2023.) It follows from King’s speech that white working-class people, along with African Americans, are harmed by racism. But how?

Competition or Partnership?

If we assume that workers and people at the bottom of society can acquire only a fixed amount of society’s income, then all such people are in competition with one another for shares of this fixed amount. And groups that identify with one another in some way—by race in particular—are in competition with other such groups. With a fixed share of the economic “pie,” more for one group means less for the other.

The share of the pie going to working people, including most African Americans, however, is not “a fixed amount.” In the United States and other countries, this share has varied over time, a consequence of changes in economic and political power.

For example, when labor unions have been powerful, the share going to working people has been larger than when unions are weak. This difference is clear in a comparison of the third quarter of the 20th century to the first quarter of the 21st century. In the United States, in 1968, the lowest- income 40% of the population obtained 18.1% of all income, while the top 20% got 41.1%; but in 2021, the lowest-income groups got only 12.1%, and the 20% at the top obtained 51.2%.

Further, when broad, progressive coalitions have been strong, the political process has yielded more adequate social support programs. Important examples are the programs that originated in the 1930s—notably the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security, and the Fair Labor Standards Act—and adopted through the 1960s—for instance, Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act.

Historically, however, the force of racism has tended to weaken both unions and broad progressive coalitions. This weakening has been direct, most clearly with unions, but also in the creation of myths about social programs. For example, there is a widely held belief, especially among white people, that social welfare programs primarily benefit African Americans. Yet, in virtually all U.S. social support programs, whites are the largest demographic group of recipients.

Historical Factors

During the 19th century and on into the first decades of the 20th century—the early era of the formation of labor unions in the United States—labor unions generally did not accept African-American members. When African Americans could obtain employment in unionized firms, it was for unskilled jobs; and they were paid lower wages than their white counterparts. Moreover, in addition to their formal exclusion, through the 1930s relatively few African Americans worked in sectors of the economy where unionization had taken place. They were concentrated in farming and household care, activities not covered by the National Labor Relations Act. (The notable exception was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded in 1925 and led by the organizer and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph.)

In at least one important way, unions’ exclusion of African-American members undercut the unions. Having been discriminated against by the unions, Black workers were generally not sympathetic to the unions that excluded them and, accordingly, were available as strikebreakers. Warren Whatley, writing in Social Science History and using published sources, “counted 141 incidents of strikebreaking by African Americans between 1847 and 1929 [mostly in the North]; 111 of these occurred between 1880 and 1929.” Because of the limitations of his sources, Whatley viewed this number as an undercount of such incidents. According to Whatley:

African-American strikebreakers were used in almost every major confrontation between capital and labor. They were used in the Jay Gould strike of 1886 ... They were used in the Homestead steel strike of 1892, the Pullman railroad strike of 1894, the stockyard strikes of 1904, the Illinois Central railroad strike of 1911, and most of the major confrontations that followed World War I, including the steel strike of 1919, the railway strikes of 1922, and the coal strikes of 1924–1927.

This strikebreaking was not brought about simply by African Americans seeing an opportunity to obtain employment, but was actively arranged by employers. A prime example is provided by the 1919 strike throughout the iron and steel industry. The evolution of that strike is described by Michael Reich, whose Racial Inequality: A Political Economic Analysis provides much of the foundation for this article. The steel companies first tried to undermine the strike by exploiting divisions between native-born, English-speaking workers and immigrants, but the immigrants tended to support the strike. Then, in the sixth week of the strike, the companies brought in 30,000 African-American workers, kept the plants running, and the strike was broken.

White People’s Views
of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Martin Luther King Day in 2022, The Guardian published an article including the following paragraph:

Although in death he became one of the most revered figures in U.S. history, for the entirety of the 39 years that King lived and breathed, there wasn’t a single day when the majority of white Americans approved of him. In 1966, Gallup measured his approval rating at 32% positive and 63% negative. That same year, a December Harris Poll found that 50% of whites felt King was “hurting the negro cause of civil rights” while only 36% felt he was helping. By the time he died in 1968, three out of four white Americans disapproved of him. In the wake of his assassination, 31% of the country felt that he “brought it on himself.”

Source: Michael Harriot, “MLK is revered today but the real King would make white people uncomfortable,” The Guardian, January 17, 2022 (

Broad social movements with interracial coalitions have played roles in our history, but they have been few and far between. Reich points to the 1890s in the South, when, “Through Populism, many white Southerners [farmers in particular] discovered the importance of interracial solidarity to pursuit of their own self-interests.” But, when “the biracial alliance [through the Populist party] threatened Democratic party power in many Southern states,” they “were defeated... [by] electoral fraud... facilitated by repressive violence and racist appeals to white Populists...even though the... Democrats had offered so little to poor white farmers.”

During the mid-20th century, in the modern Civil Rights movement, most activists and virtually all leaders were Black. There were white activists and supporters, but the great majority of whites were passive, skeptical, or opposed. And while today, Martin Luther King Jr. is widely acclaimed as an American hero, during his lifetime, a substantial majority of white people did not approve of his actions. (See sidebar.) The Civil Rights movement had major success in getting rid of Jim Crow laws and establishing national civil rights legislation, but it did not lead to a social movement based on broad interracial solidarity. Racism remains alive and well today.

The Data

While Reich’s historical account of race issues is important, his singular contribution lies in his statistical work. In this work, he examines the relation between 1) the inequality between whites and Blacks and 2) the inequality among whites. To determine how the former affects the latter, Reich uses data for 1960 and 1970 to compare experiences in the 50 largest metropolitan areas across the country—Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSAs).

In establishing his findings, Reich was confronted by extensive statistical problems. First, data on the distribution of income among whites was not directly available for SMSAs. Reich had to estimate these from other data on white incomes. Second, various other variables that could affect inequality among whites—so-called “control variables”—had to be estimated for each SMSA. For example, these control variables include for each SMSA the structure of industry, the demographic make-up of the populations, and the share of employment in the public sector. With the variables established, Reich estimated the impact of the Black/white income gap on income inequality among whites. He finds this relationship to be positive and statistically significant—the greater the inequality between Blacks and whites, the greater the inequality among whites.

This relationship operates in two ways. First, racial inequality undermines worker solidarity in wage bargaining. Second, racial inequality also undermines worker solidarity in the political realm, leading to an under-supply of public services, such as good public schools and social welfare services. (Recall from above that whites are the majority of recipients of virtually all social support programs.) These statistical results, along with his examination of the historical record, led Reich to conclude: “[Racial] inequality increases inequality among whites by benefiting capitalists and high-income whites and by hurting most white workers.”

Reich’s work (published in 1981) relied on data for 1960 and 1970, and one might argue that things are different 50 years later. However, I am not aware of any more recent statistical studies that examine this important issue. Moreover, the persistent Black/white income gap has changed very little in the last 50 years, and overall economic inequality among whites has risen. It seems likely that the same impact of racism on white workers has been maintained.

is a professor emeritus of economics at UMass–Boston and a Dollars & Sense Associate.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO, 1961(; Warren C. Whatley, “African-American Strikebreaking from the Civil War to the New Deal,” Social Science History (Winter 1993); Michael Reich, Racial Inequality: A Political Economy Analysis (Princeton University Press, 1981); Jessica Semega and Melissa Kollar, “Income in the United States: 2021, Table A-5” U.S. Census Bureau, September 13, 2022 (

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