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  • Race, Labor Markets, and Social Disorder in Twentieth-Century America:An Introduction
  • William J. Collins (bio)

In 1900, approximately 10 percent of African Americans resided in central cities; by 1970, nearly 60 percent did, far higher than the corresponding proportion of whites. This geographic redistribution was central to the twentieth-century African American economic experience, with connections radiating in innumerable directions: to labor markets, housing markets, educational systems, the civil rights movement, and public policy responses to discrimination and poverty. Although migration patterns are not their focus, each essay in this special section is closely connected to the black population's historic redistribution.

In "Ghettos and Jobs in History," Thomas N. Maloney examines how residential segregation in Cincinnati influenced job mobility around the time of World War I. Students of urban labor markets have worked extensively on questions of this nature (see, among others, Kain 1968; Wilson 1987; Massey and Denton 1993; Cutler and Glaeser 1997). Sugrue 1996 and Cutler et al. 1999 are notable recent works that map the interaction between ghetto formation and economic and social forces over several decades, but in general, the literature has focused on the post-1960 period. The dearth of longer-run [End Page 235] historical perspective is significant, and unfortunate, because it appears that the connection between residential segregation and socioeconomic outcomes changed over time (Collins and Margo 2000).

The key feature of Maloney's piece is a new data set with longitudinal information on the labor market activities of African American men. Maloney has undertaken the painstaking task of matching population census data from 1920 with archival records of Cincinnati's draft boards. The matching allows a rare glimpse of actual occupational mobility patterns from 1917 to 1920, as opposed to patterns surmised from, say, two cross-sectional samples of different individuals. Moreover, the data allow comparisons between blacks living in a predominantly black neighborhood and those residing in more integrated neighborhoods. Maloney finds no evidence that blacks residing in the predominantly black neighborhood had worse labor market outcomes than those living elsewhere in the city, a finding that reinforces the notion that the nature of economic life in America's racial ghettos changed significantly over the course of the century.

In "Labor Markets, Regional Diversity, and Cotton Harvest Mechanization in the Post–World War II United States," Craig Heinicke and Wayne A. Grove dissect the supply, demand, and policy-induced forces that drove the decline in employment in cotton agriculture after World War II. African Americans composed a large portion of the South's cotton labor force, and the flow of labor out of cotton agriculture contributed greatly to the century's rural-to-urban transformation of African American economic life. The Heinicke and Grove article complements the existing literature on race and southern agriculture (see, among others, Day 1967; Ransom and Sutch 1977; Peterson and Kislev 1986; Wright 1986; Whatley 1987; and Alston and Ferrie 1999) but also adds considerable value by focusing on the post–World War II period and by undertaking a careful econometric evaluation of new data, including estimates of the cost of mechanization in cotton picking.

At its center, Heinicke and Grove's essay pursues an innovative comparison of cotton agriculture in the old southern cotton belt with newer production centers in the southwestern and western states. The interregional comparison is useful because significant differences in historical, geographic, and climatic conditions underpinned different systems of postwar cotton labor organization. These systems, in turn, responded differently to changes in the economic environment. The econometric framework allows Heinicke and Grove to highlight these differences quantitatively. [End Page 236]

Because much of the decline in cotton agriculture employment appears to be demand-driven, former cotton-pickers may have been made economically worse off by these employment shifts, particularly in the short run. Along the lines of Maloney's work, linking individual records over time could provide insight into how workers released from cotton agriculture (or their children) fared as they moved into different sectors of the economy. Confidentiality restrictions make such links impossible for census data in the post–World War II period. But perhaps other data sources, even if less comprehensive than the census, contain enough longitudinal...


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