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Published by EH.NET (June 1999)

Timothy Minchin, Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the

Southern Textile Industry, 1960-1980. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North

Carolina Press, 1999. xii + 342 pp. $49.95 (hardback), ISBN:

0-8078-2470-4; $19.95 (paperback), ISBN 0-8078-4771-2

Reviewed by Thomas Lyons, American Bar Foundation.

African Americans were excluded from employment in the Southern textile

industry for most of this century. Before 1965, they made up little more than

two percent of its employees. At first glance this fact is unsurprising since

economic life throughout the South was strictly segregated, with blacks

occupying poorly paid laborer jobs whenever they worked in the same industries

with whites. But from an economic point of view the exclusion of African

Americans from textiles is surprising indeed.

The textile industry was the largest manufacturing industry in the South and

one of the most competitive. Most

production jobs in the mills required little skill. Hence the pressure of

competition might be expected to force textile mills, more than any other

industry, to hire African Americans.

Timothy Minchin has written an impressive historical survey which demonstrates

that the textile industry was integrated only through the federal Civil Rights

Act of 1964 and the lawsuits that followed it.

Minchin, who teaches American history at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland,

compiles internal industry data, legal documents, and dozens of interviews

with the first black textile workers in order to show that mills kept blacks

completely out of production jobs until after the Civil Rights Act came into

effect in 1965. Although anecdotal rather than statistical,

the evidence for the importance of the Act is overwhelming: employees, and

employers themselves, openly state that the federal statute was the only reason

any black workers were hired. Hence Minchin’s book establishes the efficacy of

the Civil Rights Act in bringing blacks into this industry.

But the book suffers a failing common in labor history: the consequences of

this conclusion are to some extent buried under the wealth of fascinating

testimony. Economists since Gary Becker have tended to view racial

discrimination as an aberration in the market that must be explained. All other

things being equal, discrimination against a given racial group is inefficient,

since it translates into a wage premium paid to the members of the favored

group. Minchin is aware of this received theoretical wisdom and considers one

alternative to the Civil Rights Act–the possibility that mill owners faced an

increasingly tight labor market in the late 1960’s which forced them to hire

blacks. He notes that while overall the industry was competitive, locally many

mills were situated in poor Piedmont areas with no other industry, and had

monopoly power. The labor supply changed little in the mid-’60s, Minchin

shows, yet mills began hiring blacks for the first time. An analysis in terms

of market efficiency can explain neither the initial exclusion nor the eventual

hiring.

Minchin also scrutinizes mill management’s quasi-economic defenses of its

hiring practices. One defense was the claim that blacks were unqualified for

textile jobs. Discrimination is inefficient, of course, only if the two groups

are otherwise equally productive. In fact, industry records show that the first

black workers hired turned out to be more productive, and even slightly more

highly educated, than whites

in comparable jobs. (After the initial breakthrough in 1965, however, black

male workers remained in unskilled production and rarely entered the skilled

trades or management;

Minchin shows that on-the-job training was overwhelmingly the most important

qualification for these jobs, and was systematically denied black workers.)

Mill owners further argued that white workers would not tolerate working with

blacks. Minchin shows that in fact whites almost immediately accepted the new

employees, especially when

they were told the government had obliged the mill to hire them.

Hiring the black worker, then, did more than rectify an injustice. It would

seem also to have been sound business practice, since it tapped an unused

supply of productive workers whom white workers eventually came to accept. But

in an epilogue Minchin notes that, in fact, the Southern textile industry

contracted sharply in the 1980’s. At least half a million jobs were lost as

textile manufacturing moved overseas. Of course the decline in American

manufacturing overall eliminates the possibility that the decline in Southern

textiles had anything to do with its hiring practices. But Minchin does not

confront this fact directly; he notes that the hiring of blacks coincided with

the beginning

of the industry’s decline, but provides no assessment of the overall effect of

the hiring. This weakens the book as evidence against its presumed

interlocutors, scholars such as Charles Murray, Richard Epstein, and the

Thernstroms, among others, for whom legislation like the Civil Rights Act

unnecessarily interferes in markets.

Minchin’s book adds to the evidence that market forces narrowly defined do not

explain the exclusion of blacks from Southern textiles before 1965 nor their

inclusion thereafter. Economists such as James Heckman and Brook Payner had

already come to the same conclusion, by comparing hiring in textiles to that in

other southern industries while systematically eliminating explanations other

than the Civil Rights Act for the hiring.

Min chin’s contribution is to amass evidence that all parties involved at the

time also held federal legislation directly responsible for the hiring–and

praised or blamed it accordingly. This book will be one more obstacle, and a

significant one, for opponents of anti-discrimination laws.

But it stops short of dealing with counterarguments that would point to the

overall declining position of textiles after the 1960’s. It allows critics to

dismiss the entry of blacks into textiles as a unique occurrence, and

to continue their speculations about the overall effect of anti-discrimination

law and affirmative action in the American economy.

Thomas Lyons is a research assistant at the American Bar Foundation, where he

is working with James Heckman and Petra Todd

on a study of black-white wage differences in the United States since the

Second World War.