A 1940 Fact About the Racial Composition of Public Employment

This Room for Debate piece interested me.   It asks; “What will the shrinking of the public sector mean for the economic prospects of African-Americans?”  That’s a good question.    As I skimmed the pieces, I wondered if African-Americans have always been over-represented in public sector employment.    Leah Boustan and Bob Margo have published an interesting piece  on minority employment at post offices.   In more segregating cities, African-Americans are more likely to be working in post offices. 

I then remembered that I have the entire 1940 1% Census sitting on my computer. I asked the 1,351,732 observations to teach me 2 facts.  Among people who were employed in 1940, 4.4% of whites worked in the public sector while only 1.6% of blacks worked in the public sector.  For those with at least a high school degree, 6.8% of whites and 5.4% of blacks worked in the public sector.     So, we see that there has been a “cross-over” between then and today.   Why?

UPDATE:  I define “public employment” based on these three industries; Postal service , Federal public administration, and Local public administration.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

9 thoughts on “A 1940 Fact About the Racial Composition of Public Employment”

  1. Well, that certainly explains the rising hostility of the right wing to government workers.

    In my state, the Republican legislature targeted payroll costs specifically (in lieu of achieving the same savings by other cuts). The strategy works well for them threefold: it inflicts maximum damage on a hostile constituency; disproportionately harms women and blacks, who have found, by and large, guaranteed equitable treatment for raises and promotions in the public sector, and state service cuts in justice and social guarantees harm the poor, women, and minorities most.

  2. Administration is a vague term, but it implies people who sit in office buildings. What about bus drivers, fire fighters, teachers and others directly on government payroll?

  3. I don’t have the data (though I imagine there are researchers and historians who do), but I suspect it’s as simple as the power of the civil rights movement and the vote. As African-Americans gained more power, they could place greater demands upon the public sector—and do so more easily than they could in the private sector.

  4. And, of course, given a private sector highly hostile to employing blacks in non-menial roles, a less discriminatory public sector looks really good.

  5. Tim’s concise comment resonates for me. I would surprised if academic literature in the relevant fields doesn’t include some detailed work on this. I leave it to the members of the academy to locate and reference it.

  6. Has the public sector been, on average, at the forefront of non-discriminatory employment policies? As a more democratic institution, this hypothesis would make sense.

  7. Thomas Sugrue’s “Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North” is an excellent overview of the northern civil rights movement. Sugrue focuses on the issues of employment, education and housing (as, to a large extent, did the movement); and the chapters dealing with employment make clear how bitter the fights were to open up equal employment opportunities in both the public and private sectors.

  8. Yes to tim and massapeal. Re Benny Lava’s question, we happen to be at almost exactly the 67th anniversary of the Philadelphia transit strike of August 1944. It was called by the transit union to protest federal orders that the Philadelphia Transit Company hire black conductors and motormen (drivers). The orders came from the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which, if memory serves, was FDR’s grudging creation in order to get wartime cooperation from A. Philip Randolph’s union of railroad porters, who were very largely black.

    Pre the civil rights era, customary segregation was very widespread in the north and observed by governments at all levels, most northern unions, and private companies. (For cultural reasons “north” here should also include California, I think, which used to be one of the most vicious customary- (and legal-) segregation states in the union; my suspicion has always been that the Okie migration made whites comfortable enough as a majority that civil rights could eventually work there too.)

    It’s often forgotten that Woodrow Wilson, who was after all a Virginian, ordered the federal government nationwide to follow hiring practices that would not cause discomfort in the white South. Overall, Republican administrations probably had a better race-relations record than Democrats until FDR and Truman.

    And we shouldn’t forget that Truman’s civil rights push led directly to the Dixiecrat walkout, defection of southern Democrats to the GOP (made newly respectable there in spite of the Civil War), Nixon’s Southern strategy, and the current domination of GOP politics and cultural policy by the white evangelical South. I say the latter because though there are strong areas of white evangelical politics outside the South, it’s doubtful they could have really serious degrees of influence if there were not an enormous reservoir of like opinion running from Texas through to Virginia where they dominate public discourse.

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