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Racial Integration in Corporate America, 1940-1990

Author(s):Delton, Jennifer
Reviewer(s):Maloney, Thomas N.

Published by EH.NET (April 2010)

Jennifer Delton, Racial Integration in Corporate America, 1940-1990. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. vi + 313 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-73080-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Thomas N. Maloney, Department of Economics, University of Utah.

?… [I]t is time to recognize corporations as a source of social progress and give credit to those executives and managers who actually devised and implemented the policies that integrated the workplace and transformed American society? (p. 283).

In her very engagingly written and provocative book, Jennifer Delton presents the often-ignored history of business leaders who helped to desegregate the workplace in the mid-twentieth century United States. The individuals who appear in her narrative are a varied lot. Some were motivated to use racial integration as an anti-union device, some were attempting to anticipate and possibly preempt legislation, and others were simply driven to do what they had come to think was just and fair. In telling this story, Delton, an associate professor of history at Skidmore College, also develops related themes pertaining to the evolution of cooperation between business and government and the growth of the human relations profession during the twentieth century.

Before focusing on the anti-discrimination efforts of business leaders, Delton uses her first chapter to pay tribute to the efforts of black political activists and state and federal government leaders in creating a more equitable labor market. She provides a comprehensive and skillful summary of this literature.

In chapters two and three, Delton presents some of the arguments that business leaders of the mid-twentieth century made in favor of anti-discrimination efforts. Some made economic arguments, claiming that greater integration of a firm?s work force might aid in the marketing of that firm?s products to a growing African-American consumer market. Integration would also broaden the labor supply, reducing wages and promoting a more efficient match of worker to job. It might also aid broader social stability, which would promote general economic growth. Some business leaders made more political or cultural arguments. They felt that a more visibly fair American workplace would aid the U.S. in its Cold War propaganda battle with the Soviet Union. Antidiscrimination efforts were also seen as part of a more ?modern? business ethic, a rejection of old fashioned ideas.

As business leaders explored methods for carrying out the desegregation of the workplace, they began to fund social science research on these issues. Delton examines some of these activities in chapters 3 and 4. One very visible example was the Carnegie Corporation?s providing support for Gunnar Myrdal?s work on An American Dilemma. The Ford Foundation and the Sloan Foundation are also examples of corporate-funded entities that provided resources for the study of racial inequality. Corporate America also helped to fund business schools and related professional societies, such as the American Management Association, which carried out and disseminated research on best practices for integrating the workplace. The work of these researchers helped to promote a new view of racial inequality ? as a problem that had to be solved in a systematic way, at the level of institutions, rather than simply as an issue of personal prejudice.

In chapter 5, Delton examines the rise of the human relations profession within corporations and its relation to anti-discrimination and integration efforts. Human relations professionals placed a great emphasis on the importance of training within the firm and of creating internal conditions that would promote the success of workers. This view of the operation of the ?internal labor market? generated an openness on the part of some corporations to a more ?affirmative action? style of policy, as opposed to a simpler ?fair employment? practice. The expansion of black employment was not simply a function of finding black workers who arrived on the job with a certain set of skills. Rather, it was a matter of hiring black workers and then providing what they needed to succeed, which included training but also an atmosphere in which their presence would be accepted, or at least tolerated, by white co-workers: ?[R]acial integration required more than just the cessation of racial discrimination. It required fundamental changes in personnel management? (p. 147). Delton illustrates the development of these practices at two firms in the 1940s and 1950s ? International Harvester and Pitney-Bowes. In neither case were these efforts immediately successful. More black workers were hired, but turnover rates remained rather high, and training costs were substantial. Still, Delton argues that there were long-term effects of these practices in that they prepared firms to implement the anti-discrimination and contract compliance policies to come.

Chapters 6 through 9 examine the post-1960 period, when these more ambitious anti-discrimination policies were enacted by state and federal governments. Chapter 6 reviews some of the history of state fair employment practice commissions as well as the Kennedy-era ?Plans for Progress? programs. Chapter 7 then returns the focus to private-sector actors, examining the evolution of the National Association of Manufacturers? (NAM) position on anti-discrimination policy. Delton argues that the NAM initially promoted voluntary efforts at integrating the workplace and was neutral on prospective anti-discrimination law. Once the Civil Rights Act was passed, the NAM aided firms in understanding and complying with its requirements. This was in sharp contrast to the way the NAM had responded to the Wagner Act, continuing to oppose it well after its passage.

By the late 1950s, manufacturing firms (and some better-off African-Americans) had begun to leave central cities, leading to the emergence of increasingly poor and isolated urban black communities. This development acted as a stimulus for the creation of new, cooperative programs in which government and business tried to employ more of the residents of these communities. For instance, President Johnson?s ?National Alliance of Businessmen ? Job Opportunities in Business Sector? (NAB-JOBS) program, initially headed by Henry Ford II, provided subsidies to employers for hiring disadvantaged workers. Delton describes some of this history in chapter 8 and also reviews an effort by Control Data Corporation to aid the impoverished North Minneapolis community by locating a plant there and hiring from the neighborhood. As with many such efforts, these programs produced new hires but fewer long-term employees. Delton argues, though, that they also generated new insights into how to recruit and train workers from disadvantaged communities. In fact, Control Data sold this new expertise to other firms in the form of its ?Fair Break Program? and similar human resources and training products.

Delton devotes chapter 9 to a similar case, that of the DuPont Corporation. Prior to 1968, DuPont had demonstrated limited interest in affirmative action efforts despite its status as a major government contractor covered by contract compliance requirements. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the subsequent riots in Wilmington, Delaware, DuPont?s headquarters, the firm became more actively engaged in issues of poverty and race. They centralized hiring and recruitment and more actively documented their own record in attracting and retaining minority workers. As was the case with so many firms engaged in these efforts, they met their hiring goals more often than their retention goals. Still, DuPont remained committed to these efforts and, like many employers, lobbied against the weakening of race-related contract compliance programs during the Reagan administration.

Delton does a fine job of bringing to light a neglected aspect of workplace integration in the mid-twentieth century. She makes a compelling case that successful anti-discrimination efforts ultimately required the participation and support of business leaders. It is notable that she presents few wildly successful stories of workplace integration, as measured in terms of workers hired and retained, though her quantitative evidence on this issue is limited.

Delton does not incorporate quantitative evidence on the effectiveness of anti-discrimination law and contract compliance rules either, but her discussion of the 1980s provides an interesting contrast to some work of this type. For instance, Jonathan Leonard finds that contract compliance policies had a measurable impact on the employment of African-Americans (and women) in the 1970s, but that these effects diminished greatly in the 1980s. Leonard argues that weakened enforcement allowed contractors to reduce their affirmative action efforts. How do we reconcile this finding with Delton?s argument that businesses favored the maintenance of these policies in the 1980s? If they supported these policies, why did they apparently backslide in their practices when enforcement was weakened? Perhaps well-enforced policy encouraged firms to engage in effective affirmative action programs because other firms would also be required to do so, so that whatever costs these programs entailed would also be borne by one?s competitors. The weakening of policy enforcement created uncertainty about what was really required and what other firms would see as necessary, resulting in less vigorous efforts. Yet this would not seem to be the whole story, as part of the purpose of Delton?s book is to demonstrate that there were some firms that would carry out antidiscrimination efforts even in the absence of legal requirements.

There is certainly more work to be done to quantify the effectiveness of business-led antidiscrimination efforts and to illuminate their relationship to government policy in these areas, but Delton has given us a rich historical narrative to draw on in developing and framing such research.

Thomas N. Maloney is an Associate Professor of Economics and an Investigator in the Institute of Public and International Affairs at the University of Utah. He is the co-editor, with Kim Korinek (Department of Sociology, University of Utah) of Migration in the Twenty-First Century: Rights, Outcomes and Policy (forthcoming, Routledge).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII