Journalism Associate Professor Honored For Research Article on Black Steelworkers and the Wealth Gap

April 20, 2018

We’ve all been told that the American Dream is a winning formula: work hard, invest earnings, pass wealth on to your children so they can build on it and pass it on to their children, and so on. How can you lose?
Generations of African-Americans have been frozen out of the American Dream, and instead relegated to a system of financial and social barriers, according to a research paper by Michael K. Brown, research professor of politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, titled “Divergent Fates: The Foundations of Durable Racial Inequality, 1940 – 2013.”
Brown’s research shows that just as accumulated wealth increasingly benefits each generation of white families, barriers imposed upon African-Americans impede each successive generation from building wealth and achieving higher economic status.

This injustice is at the heart of San Francisco State University Journalism Department Interim Chair and Associate Professor Venise Wagner’s research article, “Living Red: Black Steelworkers and the Wealth Gap,” which just won the 2018 Best Journal Article by the United Association of Labor Education.

“It’s so easy and it’s so common for people to look at a group of people and say, ‘They’re poor, or they don’t have anything because it’s their own doing,’” Wagner said in an interview. “People make bad decisions all the time, but the consequences of those bad decisions vary.”

Wagner’s article is actually the beginning of a book she’s writing about her grandfather, Robert Elkins, a U.S. Steel boilermaker in Chicago from 1942 to 1976, who was blocked for decades from a promotion to journeyman despite watching his white ethnic trainees get promoted above him.

Wagner knew that her grandfather finally did receive journeyman status, but she only recently discovered that the promotion was thanks to a disgruntled company supervisor, who, just before quitting, made it his last mission to rectify this injustice and give Elkins his long-deserved promotion.

“I was like, ‘Oh, now that’s an interesting story!’” she said. “From there on in, I was hooked. I was like, ‘OK, I had to figure out what was going on.’”

Her research, which has so far led her to Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Wisconsin, focuses on Chicago steelworkers in the 1950s. The article highlights a litany of inequalities between black and white steelworkers by focusing on the impact of one historical event, the 1959 Chicago steelworkers strike.

The four-month strike resulted in black steelworkers filing for bankruptcy at much higher rates than white steelworkers. One important factor was the union’s own policies, which secured coveted positions for white steelworkers, while blocking black steelworkers from the same opportunities.

“I think the bigger crime is the unions,” Wagner said. “While saying that they were, you know, all brotherhood and wanting to support all workers there, the system was established as a way of maintaining white supremacy… Even though Klan robes might not be involved, it’s sort of the thinking that, ‘I am better and so I’m entitled to what those people shouldn’t be entitled to.’”

Another practice undermining African-American communities, she writes, was Federal Housing Administration policies delineating neighborhoods by race, which limited housing opportunities for black families, creating low supply and high demand, and inflating prices. Policies also blocked African-Americans from conventional mortgages, making more susceptible to predatory lending.

Also hindering African-American upward mobility were banking and credit policies that imposed unfavorable terms and much higher interest rates than for the white population.
“Such grievous credit policies kept many black petitioners shackled in debt,” Wagner wrote.

The United Association of Labor Education honored Wagner for advancing efforts to analyze the divisions that make it difficult to work in solidarity.

“In both developed and developing countries, workers face poverty, unsafe working conditions, environmental destruction and the undermining of pro-worker policies in the service of global capital,” according to the association mission statement. “Together, we can identify strategies for taking on these challenges.”

Wagner said she was stunned to have received the award, and she appreciated the boost of confidence while still in the early stages of writing her book. She hopes to submit a book proposal to a publisher by the end of 2019.

“In many ways it gives me a boost of confidence that this is really a worthy project,” she said. “The other thing this does is it elevates this issue.”

Wagner hopes that readers will see that there’s universality in the theme of oppression. Although there’s certainly a racial structure around who is provided opportunities and who is not, “race has also gotten in the way of some working class whites to recognize the commonality that actually exists,” she said.

“Because those in power have used race as the wedge.”

Wagner’s ultimate goal, however, is to instill empathy.

“What I’m trying to get people to see is the experiences of others and that they put themselves in those experiences,” she said. “And I think that’s when we start coming together.”