During the Great Migration, communities of color sought industrial employment in the North as desirable alternatives to sharecropping in the South. However, their hopes for economic and racial liberation were gutted through deindustrialization, which robbed them of the careers they and their families had worked so hard to secure, and which has concentrated people of color in poverty, occupational segregation, and unemployment. In light of the new presidential administration and the nation’s recent reckonings with racism, The Century Foundation, Groundwork Collaborative, and the Urban Manufacturing Alliance took the moment as a call to action, and as the perfect time to present new research, feature grassroots leaders, and frame an intersectional, racially just economy for all. This work was presented at the virtual conference, “What Do Trade and Manufacturing Have to Do with Racial Justice?” on June 24. In it, these three organizations invited experts and practitioners to 1) review the historical and urgent racial justice issues at stake when it comes to trade and manufacturing; 2) feature grassroots leaders who are fighting for a more equitable future for manufacturing in communities across the country; and 3) highlight the central role progressive trade and manufacturing policies can have in advancing racial justice and creating a sustainable and equitable economy.

Key Takeaways from the Conference

Panel One: “How We Got Here: The Impact of Failed Trade Policies and Deindustrialization on BIPOC Communities”

Panelists: Valerie Wilson (Economic Policy Institute), Sandra Polaski (Boston University), William Spriggs (American Federation of Labor), and Todd Tucker (Roosevelt Institute)

Moderator: Lori Wallach (Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch)

Building trust and deconstructing the racialization of poverty are foundational for equitable trade policies in BIPOC communities. Since 1619, the physical and economic exploitation of Black people have been embedded in every facet of American society—and trade policy has not been an exception. Panelists provided a historical overview of racism’s impacts on trade, specifically pointing to the policies that led to the offshoring of jobs as one which harmed communities of color the most. The panelists also presented research on the demographics of the manufacturing workforce, racial implications of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) filings, and solutions for building a government that works for BIPOC communities through trust and economic development.

Racializing poverty in policy prevents communities from having a government and economy that works for us all.

Racializing poverty in policy prevents communities from having a government and economy that works for us all. Lori Wallach dispelled the myth that trade and plant shutdowns only hurt the white working class. Similarly, William Spriggs shared his research which found that Black workers bore the brunt during TAA filings: Along with Black workers losing nearly half a million manufacturing jobs during the NAFTA-WTO era, Black and Latinx workers disproportionately experienced certified trade related job losses and were less likely than white workers to find other employment opportunities.

During the Biden administration, we have an opportunity to employ more people of color in manufacturing and certified-trade jobs. These jobs will reach more of the people who need them, and thereby advance racial and economic justice, by not requiring a four-year degree for employment: as Valerie Wilson noted, 70 percent of Black and 80 percent of Latinx workers have not obtained such credentials. These same groups of workers, if employed in manufacturing, could also earn twice as high an income as do their peers in other industries, and have workplace benefits such as health insurance.

Employing more from BIPOC communities cannot happen successfully without building trust between those communities and the government. Todd Tucker noted that unsuccessful trade policies in communities of color have contributed to “a lack of faith in the government to engage in meaningful industrial policy, and neoliberal economists that have focused policy on only industries that employ white men.” A more progressive administration and Congress has an opportunity to advance racially just economic policies and repair these relationships. Panelist Sandra Polask pointed to the president’s Build it Better Plan and the Trade Adjustment Assistance Modernization Act of 2021 as opportunities to stimulate job creation and help workers displaced by trade, nearly 20 percent of whom are Black.

Panel Two: “Understanding Structural Inequities in the Economy”

Panelists: Jhumpa Bhattacharya (Insight Center for Community Economic Development), Sameera Fazili (The White House, National Economic Council), Héctor Huezo (Jobs to Move, America), Rob Scott (the Economic Policy Institute), and Andrew Stettner (The Century Foundation)

Moderator: Cecilia Estolano (University of California, Board of Regents)

America cannot be forced to make a choice between a quality economy and an equitable economy. The dialogue in this panel centered that fact, and included conversations about how today’s economic policies measure up, and the building blocks necessary for an economy that can affirm historically marginalized people, particularly women of color. The discussion ranged from inclusive industrial renewal to community hiring practices, to filling 300,000 manufacturing jobs with people of color. The basis for hiring should be community benefits agreements, should include trauma-informed approaches, and should create career pathways within our K–14 education system.

The panelists discussed the structural barriers for people of color in the economy, particularly in entrepreneurship, and how conversations on race and gender must be de-siloed. Sameera Fazili noted that commitments to small business investment capital (SBIC) programs, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and neighborhood revitalization can help eliminate barriers for entrepreneurs of color in accessing capital and resources as small firms. The panelists, particularly Héctor Huezo and Andrew Stettner, also discussed the importance for diversity wages, and hiring practices of workers being employed in equitable environments through community benefits agreements and among community experts. Holistically, trauma-informed approaches must also be centered, particularly in confronting the racist history of deindustrialization and workers’ mistrust of the sector. Urban residents of color are often seen walking past manufacturing firms who are hiring because they do not think they will be hired, nor do they see owners who look like them. As a solution, more youth of color should be exposed to jobs in manufacturing, career pathways which can be carved out and supported through the Senate’s legislation.

More youth of color should be exposed to jobs in manufacturing, career pathways which can be carved out and supported through the Senate’s legislation.

Rob Scott provided examples of investing in workers through more aggressive industrial policies (e.g., manufacturing extension services), such as those in Germany and South Korea, including having more workers on boards of corporations. Similarly, Sameera affirmed worker empowerment and investments in manufacturing partnerships through the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act as models. She underscored that, “For too long companies have treated workers as a cost to be managed, not as an asset to be invested in; and if you want to move to having innovation and productivity and quick thinking, then it’s your workers who drive those improvements and changes in your firms.” The panel centered on building a high-quality and equitable economy that affirms workers of color who have been too often sidelined from thriving in the industry.

Panel Three: “Community-Led Efforts to Rebuild Manufacturing in Communities of Color”

Speakers: Nieves Longordo (Diseños Ornamental Iron), Girard J. Melancon (Baton Rouge Community College), Stephen Tucker (Northland Workforce Training Center), and Dr. Ronald Williams (Coppin State University).

Moderator: Bernadine Hawes (Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center)

Cultivating a diverse workforce requires investing in the economic, psychological, and emotional well-being of worker communities. Bernadine Hawes led the panelists in outlining the goals of promoting Black and Brown success in manufacturing and how workforce development can have an intentional commitment to diversity.

Panelists provided a historical and current lens on BIPOC communities seeking manufacturing employment, and underscored how trust, equitable wages, and a genuine care for Black and Latinx workers has been omitted in workforce discussions. The panelists provided the steps necessary to build trust and how to use holistic approaches to ensure BIPOC workers thrive and advance in places of employment. One of those steps is impactful credentialing in manufacturing—that is, ensuring community college and workforce program graduates earn certifications that are fully aligned with what local firms desire in their candidates.

The panel began with Carolyn Chism Hardy, founder of Chism Hardy Investments, who shared her personal experiences with racism and bank lending as a Black woman owner of a manufacturing firm. Her story included her credentials being met with skepticism as a current Black business owner and the uniqueness of her experience as a recipient of a $25 million loan. She sparked the dialogue by underscoring that “destiny is not a chance: it is a choice.”

In a testimony with similar themes, Nieves Longordo delineated her experiences as a Latina manufacturing owner of a predominantly Hispanic workforce. She noted the different needs that pertain to Black and Latinx workers as opposed to white workers, including wraparound services for child care and transportation—services that predominantly white-owned firms traditionally have not provided. Her call to action was additional grants being provided to small and mid-size companies to leverage equitable funding opportunities.

Dr. Ronald Williams provided a personal and historical grounding on the migration of Civil War troops from the South to the industrial North in hopes of education and employment. He connected the hopes of his ancestors during that period to the demands for living wages in current conversations. Girard noted that confronting the racism in manufacturing means understanding why Black residents have mistrust—namely, that BIPOC workers typically work in the “dirtiest, hardest, unskilled labor, with no pathway of mobility nor workforce training.”

HBCUs are becoming conduits of institutional trust through recruitment and trauma-informed strategies.

To build trust, Dr. Ronald Williams added that HBCUs are becoming conduits of institutional trust through recruitment and trauma-informed strategies. Along with recruiting, Stephen Tucker underscored the importance of retaining students in workforce development programs, and ensuring they see pathways of upward mobility in manufacturing firms. Career coaches and apprenticeships can serve as preparation for students. The panelists emphasized that we must not allow the movement for racial justice to become temporary. Racial justice in the workforce should be advanced by collective industry and education partners, evolved based on the communities’ and economic needs, and made actionable with tangible, concrete goals to advance historically disenfranchised people as workers, and ideally, owners in industrial firms.

Federal Recommendations from the Conference

  • Our future is in manufacturing. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) underscored the need to fill manufacturing jobs through investments in infrastructure. He led South Carolina to be one of the top ten states in manufacturing through a robust investment in infrastructure. The 300,000 unfilled positions in manufacturing present an opportunity for diversity to be placed front and center.
  • The American Jobs Plan and grassroots organizing present an opportunity to dismantle structural racism in the economy. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro noted the importance of the participation of grassroots leaders in identifying the ways that current practices in the manufacturing sector harm communities of color, particularly with respect to occupational segregation and racial discrimination. The American Jobs Plan will create opportunities for women and BIPOC communities through workforce development, job placement, and $285 million for apprenticeship programs. However, this will not be enough on its own. Grassroots leaders are encouraged to work with and pressure Congress to pass legislation that is inclusive and affirming of a racially diverse workforce.
  • Congress needs a worker-centered infrastructure package that is inclusive of the green and care economies, and is anti-racist and anti-sexist. Professor Darrick Hamilton ended the conference by providing an intersectional lens on insights from the speakers. He noted that Congress should expand the definition of “infrastructure” so that it becomes inclusive of a green economy, that is, one that promotes job placement in BIPOC communities to reduce climate change; and of a care economy, meaning one that supports all Americans with universal social benefits, including child and elderly care. Calling for an economic bill of rights is not new, but it has never been more necessary than now.

President Biden’s administration and members of Congress have increasingly committed their work to advancing racial justice; if they’re to make good on those commitments, then the basic needs of BIPOC communities must be met first. This includes feeding their families, caring for their loved ones, and, ultimately, providing them with the dignity of good-paying work with a robust pipeline for mobility. Historically, communities of color have been excluded from these economic securities, and the American Dream of building intergenerational wealth has been unattainable. That stops here. Through economic policies such as the American Jobs Plan and a worker-centered infrastructure plan, communities of color can at last receive the economic freedoms that they are long overdue, and America can truly become a nation with economic justice and liberties for all.

The Century Foundation and the Urban Manufacturing Alliance would like to thank the Lumina Foundation and The Groundwork Collaborative for helping to sponsor the conference. Go here to view recordings of the panelists and speakers.