Black to the Future: Will Robots Increase Racial Inequality?

Spencer Overton
President, The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies

Twitter: @SpencerOverton

Today, we stand at the crossroads of opportunity. If we do nothing, automation and other technologies could displace Black workers and increase racial disparities. But with strategic positioning that accurately predicts the skills and jobs that will be in demand, we can harness automation to increase prosperity and opportunity for the Black community.

America is changing.  Grocery stores are installing self-checkout lanes. Manufacturing plants are increasingly using industrial robots. And driverless trucks, buses, and cars will soon be commonplace.  

Artificial intelligence, big data, robotics and other technologies are emigrating from Silicon Valley and settling in communities across the United States. Large companies are rushing to reduce costs, increase efficiencies, and respond to customers’ demands by automating their processes. 

These changes, and others, could have a significant impact on Black workers. In 2017, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 27% of all African-American workers are concentrated in 30 jobs at high risk to automation. For example, compared to white workers, Black workers are over one-and-a-half times more likely to be cashiers, cooks, and fast food workers, and over three times more likely to be bus drivers, taxi drivers, chauffeurs, and security guards (the Center’s next study will explore whether a larger percentage of African-American workers’ job tasks can be automated).  

Black unemployment rates are already about twice as high as white unemployment rates. The displacement of only half of Black workers in the 30 largest jobs at high risk to automation could increase the African-American unemployment rate from nearly seven percent to more than 20 percent.

Black workers face unique challenges that make them particularly vulnerable during labor market transitions. Implicit bias in evaluation and hiring make it more difficult for Black workers to transition to new jobs. Limitations in social networks—both online and offline—make it less likely that Black workers will learn about a new job or have an inside track in securing it. Residential segregation and transportation challenges make getting to and from work especially onerous for African Americans. And a median household net worth that is one tenth that of whites means Black families face particular challenges paying for monthly household expenses during extended periods of unemployment. 

But all is not lost. To steal a moment from popular culture, let’s visit the Afrofuturistic nation of Wakanda. In Black Panther, Wakanda is not a broken country that requires it to be fixed according to a western imperialist model. Instead, Wakanda is significantly more prosperous and technologically advanced than other nations.

This powerful concept is not merely the stuff of comic book science fiction. IRL, or “in real life,” Black workers have discerned the future and strategically positioned themselves for relevance and success. Black female NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, depicted in the movie Hidden Figures, speculated that an incoming IBM computer would displace her team in the 1960s. In anticipation, NASA’s Black female mathematicians learned the computer language Fortran and were prepared to take over new jobs operating the computer when it arrived.

The same is possible today. Economic disruption will eliminate some jobs, change the tasks of other jobs, and create new jobs. For example, while online shopping has reduced sales and the number of employees at traditional retail stores, the rise in e-commerce has created new jobs with the hiring of workers at places like fulfillment centers. A study by Dr. Michael Mandel found that from 2007 to 2016, the general retail sector lost 51,000 jobs while the e-commerce sector added 355,000 jobs. We must work to ensure that e-commerce retailers build a healthy number of fulfillment centers near Black neighborhoods.

Autonomous vehicles are another area of opportunity. As previously discussed and detailed in a Center for Global Policy Solutions report, African Americans disproportionately work as drivers; therefore, we must address their future employment prospects and simultaneously tackle a lack of transportation as an obstacle to mobility. Properly deployed—perhaps even as a private or non-profit service—autonomous vehicles could lower the cost of transportation and provide the mobility many Black people need to get to and from work.

As the infrastructures for new technologies are being developed, we must leverage our political capital to ensure that racial equity is baked into the design and is not simply an afterthought. The challenges are complex. No one has all of the answers concerning the future of work, but here are some key principles we can adopt towards the work at hand: 

  • New Skills Tailored to the Local Economy: Black workers must acquire new skills that are increasingly in-demand nationally and locally. Because industries and job openings are highly dependant on locale, the skills in demand in Memphis will differ from those in demand in Detroit.

  • Local Implementation is Key: In light of the scale of upcoming changes, the existing workforce development system may prove inadequate. National Urban League affiliates can help coordinate community leaders, local government, employers, labor unions, and educational institutions to identify in-demand jobs in the local economy, develop methods to deliver skills to residents, create clear pathways to jobs, and help new workers find success. For example, major employers in healthcare, information technology, and other high-growth areas should partner with high schools and community colleges in Black communities to provide a pipeline of education, training, and opportunity for young people ages 16-24. Economies in predominately Black cities and counties grow if local leaders can effectively implement strategies to build a strong workforce. While we should support federal reforms in Congress like proposed tax credits for employers who invest in training and Pell grants for in-demand job training (see the Aspen Institute report for further detail), at the local level, Black cities and counties should take the initiative and leapfrog ahead by strategically investing in local workforce.

  • Lifelong Learning:  A platitude, but true. Constant innovation means that all workers—from the manufacturing worker to the accountant and radiologist—must constantly acquire and refresh in-demand skills. This doesn’t, however, need to be onerous or complex. Workers can learn through podcasts, online tools, learning apps, apprenticeships, employer-based training, “nano-degrees,” and other practical ways that allow workers to quickly and affordably obtain skills. 

  • Employer Accountability:  Employers eager to fill open positions are prone to pointing a finger of blame at their workforce, arguing that employees are responsible for obtaining the right skills and closing the skills gap. Too often, companies use this talking point to deflect responsibility when they automate and displace employees. Companies that benefit from automation should not shift the burdens to workers who are the least equipped to bear them. Instead, companies should take their fair share of responsibility and create a culture that affirmatively anticipates change and helps employees plan out and acquire new skills, including paying for training. Employers should also bring in new employees to diversify their workforces by providing apprenticeships and other work-based learning programs (see the  Jobs for the Future  case study as an example). 

  • The Future of Work is Now: While the future of work involves strengthening the educational system for children, many initiatives implicitly write off parents—and that’s wrong. We must invest in both strong K-12 education for children and education and skills training for parents. Helping parents master soft skills in $25,000 per year service jobs and then transitioning them to $60,000 per year skilled jobs would have a tremendous impact on Black communities. 

  • Job Quality: We should not focus on statistics like lowering unemployment rates and raising incomes to the exclusion of job quality. Black happiness also stems from meaningful work that helps others, provides opportunities for learning and growth, and allows for collaboration with others. 

  • End the Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. DuBois Debate: Black economic security is not a binary choice between trade school versus college, or blue collar versus white collar.  The choice is never mutually exclusive. An argument can be made that Black communities are saddled with inadequate education to maintain a class of cheap labor, but we deprive millions of Black workers dignity and opportunity if we limit success to a B.A. or the N.B.A. While degrees are essential in today’s economy, there are still jobs that prioritize critical thinking and technological skills over diplomas. The Black community must compete for information technology jobs, advanced manufacturing jobs, and a host of other good jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree. 

This is an incredibly important moment for Black communities.  To ignore this opportunity is to risk the mass displacement of Black workers to automation. If we can strategically exploit automation, however, it can provide fresh starts, create new opportunities, and disrupt entrenched race-based, socio-economic hierarchy. From Singapore to Estonia, nations have predicted the future and designed their infrastructure, workforce, and other economic policies to leapfrog ahead in relatively short periods of time. We can do the same thing from Mississippi to Detroit.