Black migration at the margin of freedom

Citation: International Journal of Population Geography, 2003, 9, 2, 113-139

The history of Black migration is a story of continuity and change, a paradoxical story of hopes and despairs. Situating migration as a labour process within the general framework of labour-capital relations, this study examines the role of south-to-north migration in Black Americans’ upward mobility and human capital accumulation for the period 1910-1970. The conceptual argument advanced is that labour market distortions, based on the historical legacy of colour as a marker of one’s ability, affect the way capitalist forces use (underutilise) Black migrants, leading to the underdevelopment of their human capital. An analysis of IPUMS data samples showed: (1) Black migrants were far more likely to experience unemployment in the labour markets of the Midwest than their White counterparts; (2) the unemployment rate of more-educated Black migrants was higher than that for less-educated Black migrants; (3) race was revealed by regression analysis to be an important variable in explaining why Blacks were far more likely to be found in low-wage, least upwardly mobile occupations than their White counterparts, whose proportionate employment share of the high-end occupations was much greater than that of Blacks; and (4) geographically, the early advantage that Black migrants enjoyed from locating in the central city lost much of its value over time. This may reflect how, while Blacks remained trapped in central cities because of residential segregation, jobs – especially those in the private sector – have increasingly moved out of the city, thus creating a mismatch between their residence and the location(s) of jobs. Overall, the data analysis suggests that race still matters, as the colour of labour remains a source of discrimination in terms of both the extent to which Black labour was used (unemployment rate) and how it was used (occupation). The result was that capitalist forces in the American labour market systematically undervalued or suppressed Black migrants’ pre-existing human capital, thus denying them an opportunity fully to harness their potential and enhance their human capital accumulation.

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