EHS 2018 special: How the Second World War promoted racial integration in the American South

by Andreas Ferrara (University of Warwick)

c805244f10399f75a8d9f41f67baf87e
African American and White Employees Working Together during WWII. Available at <https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/396950154628232921/&gt;

European politicians face the challenge of integrating the 1.26 million refugees who arrived in 2015. Integration into the labour market is often discussed as key to social integration but empirical evidence for this claim is sparse.

My research contributes to the debate with a historical example from the American South where the Second World War increased the share of black workers in semi-skilled jobs such as factory work, jobs previously dominated by white workers.

I combine census and military records to show that the share of black workers in semi-skilled occupations in the American South increased as they filled vacancies created by wartime casualties among semi-skilled whites.

A fallen white worker in a semi-skilled occupation was replaced by 1.8 black workers on average. This raised the share of African Americans in semi-skilled jobs by 10% between 1940 and 1950.

Survey data from the South in 1961 reveal that this increased integration in the workplace led to improved social relations between black and white communities outside the workplace.

Individuals living in counties where war casualties brought more black workers into semi-skilled jobs between 1940-50 were 10 percentage points more likely to have an interracial friendship, 6 percentage points more likely to live in a mixed-race neighbourhood, and 11 percentage points more likely to favour integration over segregation in general, as well as at school and at church. These positive effects are reported by both black and white respondents.

Additional analysis using county-level church membership data from 1916 to 1971 shows similar results. Counties where wartime casualties resulted in a more racially integrated labour force saw a 6 percentage points rise in membership shares of churches, which already held mixed-race services before the war.

The church-related results are especially striking. In several of his speeches Dr Martin Luther King stated that 11am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in American life. And yet my analysis shows that workplace exposure of two groups can overcome even strongly embedded social divides such as churchgoing, which is particularly important in the South, the so-called bible belt.

This historical case study of the American South in the mid-twentieth century, where race relations were often tense, demonstrates that excluding refugees from the workforce may be ruling out a promising channel for integration.

Currently, almost all European countries forbid refugees from participating in the labour market. Arguments put forward to justify this include fear of competition for jobs, concern about downward pressure on wages and a perceived need to deter economic migration.

While the mid-twentieth century American South is not Europe, the policy implication is to experiment more extensively with social integration through workplace integration measures. This not only concerns the refugee case but any country with socially and economically segregated minority groups.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s