restricted access Personnel Policy and Racial Inequality in the Pre-World War II North
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Personnel Policy and Racial Inequality in the Pre-World War II North *

Between 1910 and 1940, the black population of the northern United States nearly tripled, rising from just over 1 million to more than 2.7 million, signaling the start of the “Great Migration” of African-Americans out of the South. As black workers entered the North, they sought positions in new sectors of the economy. The share of northern black workers in manufacturing rose from about 17 percent to 28 percent during these years, while the shares in agriculture and personal services fell sharply. Consequently, many northern employers faced new questions regarding race in the labor market. Some had to consider whether to hire black workers for the first time, and others whether to employ more of these workers in a broader variety of occupations. 1

In 1946, Hughes stated that, for many employers, “the decision to hire Negroes at all where they have not been employed before, or to hire them for new kinds of jobs, is generally regarded as a step into a dangerous unknown.” It would likely have long-term repercussions. Myrdal, describing the entry of black workers into new firms during these years, stated that “employers who do employ Negroes . . . often get a higher appreciation of them than employers who do not.” Employers who hired black workers during this period often learned that their initial expectations about black workers’ abilities were inaccurately low, clouded by [End Page 235] racial prejudice. By hiring black workers, they entered into a process of “demand-side learning,” potentially leading to ongoing gains for black workers at these firms. 2

Myrdal emphasized the long-run importance of black workers gaining initial entry to an industry, but he did not deal at length with the question of why some employers conducted the initial experiment of hiring black workers while others did not. To the extent that he addressed the issue, he emphasized the role of “accidental happenings . . . whether a small group among many employers who experienced a labor shortage happened to get the idea to try [black workers] out.” The attitudes of individual employers were certainly important, but were there more systematic determinants of an employers’ willingness to experiment with the growing northern black labor pool? 3

To begin to answer this question, we need to know about black workers’ success in obtaining different kinds of jobs in the North during this period. Table 1 presents the percentage of black workers among the male workforce in several northern industries in 1940. This measure reveals much variation in black entry to these industries. African-Americans gained little access in the production of machines and machine tools, or in electrical manufacturing, but achieved much higher percentages in auto works and the iron and steel industry. In order to look more closely at the jobs that these workers held, we have to restrict our attention to particular cities in the North for which tabulations by race, occupation, and industry are available. Although the percentage of black workers in these urban areas increased for all industries, as many migrants from the South concentrated in northern cities on arrival, nonetheless, the racial make-up of these industries’ urban workforces was hardly uniform. We can narrow our focus to production workers in these cities, to exclude both white-collar [End Page 236] positions, to which black workers had little access in any industry, and service jobs within these industries, which were often more traditionally black jobs. The range in the percentage of African-Americans among production workers ran from 1.3 percent in electrical manufacturing to 8.6 percent in stone, clay, and glass. 4

Table 1

Employment of African-American Males in Northern Industries, 1940

Representation Ratios
Industry Percent Black (1) Percent Black In Urban Areas (2) Percent Black Among Production Workers (3) Production Workers (4) Non-Laborers (5)
Automobiles and parts 3.9 6.8 7.0 .855 .586
Chemicals 2.8 5.0 7.9 .971 .573
Clothing 1.9 2.5 1.9 .222 .202
Electrical manufacturing 0.6 1.3 1.3 .151 .092
Food products 3.0 6.5 7.6 .930 .679
Iron and steel...