How do economists model racial discrimination in the workplace 

It’s a complex question not easily answered, but in a recent seminar, esteemed Howard University Professor and Chief Economist for the AFL-CIO William E. Spriggs offered CSU’s Department of Economics insight by looking back at labor unions in the 1940s to better understand challenges today. 

The March 5 seminar, titled “Back to the Future: Technological Progress and Race in the First Half of the 20th Century, Railroads, examined the history of discrimination against Black railroad workers in parallel to present-day discrimination against Black computer programmers.  

“Dr. Spriggs’ work illustrates an incredibly important point: labor market discrimination based on group membership, like race, ethnicity, or gender, manifests in the very structures and institutions that govern labor markets,” commented Chair and Professor of Economics Elissa Braunstein. “Defining occupations in terms that advantage or disadvantage different groups of workers is a classic example, and something that economic history can help us understand.” 

Discrimination on the Rails 

While Jim Crow laws were codifying racial segregation throughout the United States at the turn of the 20th Century, railroads were also emerging as a vital industrializing force. During this period, most Black men who were hired by the railroad companies were trained as locomotive firemenresponsible for shoveling coal and stoking the boiler to power steam engines.  

“It was a dirty job, and exceedingly dangerous,” Spriggs explained“[The railroad] relied on the experience of both the fireman and the locomotive engineer to make sure the boiler didn’t explode.” 

As technological advances replaced coal with oil, and then diesel to create electricity, the fireman job became cleaner, safer, and much more desirable position seen as an apprentice to the engineerIn turn, rail companies stopped hiring Black men for those jobs and started looking for ways to oust established Black firemen from their positions 

Spriggs cited Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. (1944), in which the Supreme Court ruled against an application of an Alabama “separate but equal” doctrine that sought to abolish seniority and replace it with one career track for white firemen who would be reclassified as Assistant Engineers” who could be promoted and a separate track for Black workers who, as firemen, would never be promoted. In siding with the plaintiff, the Court ruled that unions were required to represent all employees equally.  

Using regression analysisSpriggs illustrated that it wasn’t about lack of education. The rails relied on a workforce of men largely with less than an eighth-grade education, and an analysis of wage earnings in 1940 show that there were bigger rewards for experience over education. Workers were often hired on at 18 years old, and needed to learn on the job, so the years of experience were far more valuable than schooling.  Additionally, even thousands of college-educated Black workers were relegated to low-paying jobs as railroad porters rather than given opportunity to become skilled engineers. 

“[The railroad companies] should want college educated men to handle the management questions, but that’s not where we see college educated Black men in this industry,” Spriggs said. “What’s going on is that the two more desired jobs – engineer and locomotive fireman – are organized by all-white unions that openly discriminated in concert with the companies.” 

While it proved difficult for unions to get rid of established Black firemen who were protected by the same collective bargaining as white workersthere was nothing to stop railroad companies from shifting hiring practices 

Spriggs explained, “As the nature of the [fireman] job was changing, fewer men were being hired in; and there were no Black workers under the age of 32 in 1940. The unions had succeeded so the only Black men left were over 40, with seniority.” 

Statistical analysis show that, after controlling for education and experience, Black workers faced a wage penalty among firemen, brakemen, and engineers. What the data can’t show are the political obstacles deliberately constructed to block Black workers from advancing within the industry. 

“Economists are very aware that unions discriminated; unfortunately, we rarely think about what that means. If you just run a regression without looking at the institutional structures, you miss a whole lot of the story.” 

Back to the Future 

In the second half of his talk, Spriggs suggested to participants, “If you paid attention to the movie Hidden Figures, you’ve heard this story before.” 

The film in reference, a 2016 biography of the first team of Black women mathematicians who worked for NASA during the space race, illustrates parallels between what happened to Black railroad workers and what has happened to Black computer programmers from the 1960s through today.  

You see a room full of white men writing equations, but it was beneath the white men to do the calculations to get the actual numbers. So, Kathleen Johnson, a Black woman ‘computer,’ becomes the head programmer who writes the code that safely gets Americans into space and returning in one piece. That was monumental. That changed human history, Spriggs said.  

Following the same trajectory as the railroad firemen, the job of a computer went from the menial task of solving math equations by hand to the coveted position of a computer programmer, evolving with developments in machine technology and shutting out skilled Black workers along the way.  

In 1989, 5 of the 20 largest Black owned businesses were computer or systems integrators, because it was the job that wasn’t desirable,” Spriggs said. “Fast-forward to now, the tech industry claims to want diverse computer programmers but says, ‘We can’t find any.’ Lots of people buy into their myths that Black people don’t do STEM.” 

While in 2000, Black Americans were 9.9% of programmers overall, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports the share of Black workers in technology is declining, and Black workers are underrepresented at leading tech companies, particularly in Silicon Valley where they are less than 3% 

Yet at Howard University in Washington, D.C., for example, hundreds of Black students graduate every year with bachelor’s degrees in computer science and other STEM fields 

“STEM is not a pipeline question. Black students are more likely to major in computer science than white students, and Black Americans outnumber Asian Americans in computer science. Information technology is the largest middle-class occupation for Black people. Black people do STEM,” argued Spriggs. 

Once again, the piece we can’t get from regression analysis alone is discrimination, this time against graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in favor of foreign workers under the H1-B visa program. 

Those women who were featured in Hidden Figures all graduated from HBCUs. The people who wrote the code that got Americans safely into space graduated from HBCUs,” Spriggs said. Yet all of a sudden, this looks like the firemen job. Now that it’s desirable, suddenly there are people who have skills who are in the wrong place because we want their jobs. These are vital programmers, and this looks so much like what we saw in the railroad.” 

When asked about policy prescriptions, Spriggs is adamant about domestic recruiting that includes HBCUs, and rethinking the H1-B visa program. 

“HBCUs are vital for the production of Black college graduates in STEM. We need to insist that [tech companies] show far greater effort at domestic recruiting. For them to openly dismiss American colleges and show such disdain for 80% of Americans isn’t cutting it.”