Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal

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Tuesday, Nov. 2, 1993




Beacon Journal staff writers
(One of a series, "A Question of Color")

At last, Jamie Patterson felt like he was making it.

Frustrated by the parade of dead-end jobs his high school diploma had been getting him, he went back to school to beef up his resume and finally landed something that looked like it had a future.

By the summer of 1991, after more than a year as manager of the Sally Beauty Supply store in Montrose, Patterson had started to feel like he and his family were on their way.

A raise and sales bonuses had boosted his annual income into the $20,000 range. Add wife Margaret's $19,000 salary as assistant manager of the Montrose Taco Bell, and the Pattersons had income to spare for the first time.

Even with a second child on the way, they were able to buy a new Nissan Sentra. And they were sending their daughter to private preschool at Our Lady of the Elms.

In short, the Pattersons were right where they wanted to be. The great American Dream of homeownership and upward mobility seemed little more than hard work away.

That was two years ago.

Today, the Pattersons are an eyelash away from far more dire straits, their goal of middle-class security seemingly farther from reach than ever.

In October 1991, Jamie Patterson, an African-American, was fired from Sally's, in what government investigators later concluded was a racially biased decision.

He still hasn't recovered.

What followed was a discouraging succession of short-term, part-time jobs capped by a layoff from Kmart in April. After months of job hunting, Patterson remains out of work to this day.

His wife, Margaret, now with two youngsters at home, also slipped a rung or two on the economic ladder when she left Taco Bell for a less demanding -- and much lower-paying -- job at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Akron.

And Jamie's $140-a-week unemployment check is now the only tether keeping the Pattersons from slipping below the poverty line.

Jamie and Margaret Patterson weren't raised to be poor. Both are hard- working, frugal, church-going believers in the American creed that if you try hard enough, you will succeed.

So, why are they heading south financially?

Barriers to success

Is it possible in the 1990s that the color of a person's skin can stymie a promising career and threaten an entire family with imminent poverty?

Or are there even stronger forces at work in the local economy that are keeping the Pattersons and so many other African-Americans like them from entering the great American middle class?

Whatever the barrier -- racial bias, economic stagnation or some combination -- the line at the gate is clearly getting longer.

Despite the significant progress enjoyed by many African-Americans here, census data show that blacks in the Akron area were worse off in 1990 relative to whites than they had been a decade earlier.

They had lost ground in average income. They had fallen into poverty at a faster clip. And they were far more likely to be unemployed and dependent on the government for basic needs.

Half of all African-American households in Summit County were receiving food stamps in 1992, according to state records, compared to only about 9 percent of white households.

One out of every four blacks in the county was on welfare, compared to about one in 25 whites.

And, according to 1990 census data, nearly one black man in every five who was looking for work in the Akron area couldn't find it -- three times the unemployment rate for white men.

How direct a role skin color has played in such a distressing array of numbers would be difficult to measure, although it was definitely a factor in the Pattersons' economic slide.

Racism in action

Jamie Patterson claimed when he was fired from Sally Beauty Supply two years ago that the move was based on racial discrimination. Investigators from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and the Ohio attorney general's office concurred. Sally's later agreed to clear the firing from Patterson's work history, according to records, and to pay him a small settlement as a result.

But it's just as true that racial bias plays a lesser role than some of the economic forces frustrating the Pattersons' dreams -- forces that potentially are far more ominous for African-Americans than discrimination alone.

Race claims filed with the civil rights commission are actually down slightly over the last decade, and only about three out of 10 allegations can be proved.

But those larger economic forces, cost-cutting pressures resulting from mounting global competition, have continued to drive a dramatic restructuring of the U.S. economy in recent decades -- shifts that have steadily dimmed the hopes of succeeding generations of blacks and whites alike in America's once mighty industrial cities.

As manufacturing jobs from northern urban centers like Akron, Canton and Cleveland have moved to suburban and rural locations in the South, West and overseas, they have been replaced with lower-paying white-collar positions in rapidly growing service industries. More recently, the cost-cutting pressures have forced a potentially devastating shift from a mainly full-time work force in this country to one increasingly made up of part-time and temporary employees.

Last in, first out

Such fundamental economic shifts have hammered the poor and working people of all colors in this region.

But blacks as a group have been hammered harder, economists say. They've had farther to climb and less time to do it because they were among the last to arrive.

The greatest migration of blacks from the South to the northern industrial cities began during World War II -- long after the great waves of European immigrants had settled. As relative newcomers, blacks were robbed of at least one generation in the kind of high-octane, blue-collar jobs that had served as economic catapults for the poor and unskilled in other immigrant groups -- jobs that paid strong, middle-class wages even to those with little education.

"They didn't get their full ride on the pony," said Keith Fletcher, an economic analyst for the state of Ohio. "They never had the advantage of gaining a couple generations in those jobs."

And because blacks tend to be concentrated in urban areas where the industrial job losses have been most pronounced, pockets of black poverty there have deepened.

What jobs are left for urban blacks often lack the economic horsepower to sustain an ascent from poverty, economists say. And the educational requirements for many that do are rising rapidly.

The result? Too frequently, too many black applicants are competing with too many white applicants for too few quality jobs.

A family's decline

For Jamie Patterson, whose father and grandfather had both worked secure jobs in Akron's rubber shops for decades, a combination of those forces frustrated the search for meaningful employment before and after his stint at Sally's. And it helped short-circuit his wife's nearly decadelong career at Taco Bell as well.

About the time that Patterson's career at Sally's was derailed, Taco Bell -- in a nationwide effort to cut management costs -- hiked the preferred job specifications for store managers to include college degrees. With only a high school diploma, Margaret Patterson's steady, 10-year advancement ran aground. "Assistant manager was now as high as I could go," she said.

With two youngsters at home and 10-hour workdays already -- plus being on call for emergencies -- Margaret didn't see how she could take advantage of Taco Bell's program to reimburse employees for college tuition.

So she switched to Children's Hospital, where the pay was about $5,000 less a year than she was making at Taco Bell, but the hours were fewer as well. She hopes to start taking college classes soon under the hospital's tuition- reimbursement program.

Husband Jamie, meanwhile, has spent the last two years trying to reverse his own economic slide, bouncing from one dead-end job to another -- including peddling vacuum cleaners door-to-door and selling furniture on commission -- and landing in the unemployment line.

Patterson believes he fell from grace' at Sally Beauty Supply by fighting a 1991 transfer from his store in mostly white Montrose to a new Sally's outlet in an area of southeast Akron with more black residents. He readily acknowledges that it probably made good business sense to have a black manager in a new store with the potential to attract black customers.

But the move would have cost him his bonus income from sales he had built up in Montrose, Patterson said -- amounting to an indefinite 20 percent pay cut when his wife was expecting their second child.

He balked at going without compensation. The company didn't force the issue. But three months later, Patterson was fired for missing a meeting during an out-of-town sales conference.

Patterson said he missed the session because he was ill. Company officials wouldn't discuss the matter. Whatever the case, government investigators concluded that firing Patterson for one offense not only violated Sally's own policies, but also exceeded punishments meted out to white employees for potentially more serious infractions. Thus the finding of racial discrimination.

But what troubles Patterson the most is that the company didn't seem to care about his financial concerns. They acted like I had no right to refuse because they felt I should be so appreciative of having a job.'

It's an experience that made Patterson feel expendable -- not just as a black worker, but as a worker, period. And his frustrating employment record since has pounded the lesson home.

Workers outnumber jobs

Unlike 20 or 30 years ago in Akron, it's an employer's job market out there. Even a generation ago, a man -- black or white -- could prosper here on nothing more than a willingness to work, a union card and a high school diploma, if that.

Today, Patterson has a high school diploma, goes back to school and gets an associate degree in business management -- giving him more education than most working adults here regardless of skin color -- and he still hasn't been able to land anything worthwhile.

While he remains optimistic, Patterson admits the competition has been tough. "The people with (four-year) degrees are competing for the $6-an-hour jobs," he said.

He said he's had it with retail work: I've had no luck with the $5- to $6- an-hour jobs. I couldn't advance.'

So he hopes to try selling insurance instead. He said a Fairlawn company recently agreed to hire him if he can pass the state certification exam. But he won't be able to take the test until he completes a training course late this month.

Meanwhile, the months of fruitless searching have taken their toll on his self-confidence.

"A man is defined by his job," Patterson said.

Everything rides on your employment. That's the man's role: To protect his family, to provide for his family. If you can't do that, society tells you you're not a man.'

One of the fortunate

Things have worked out far differently for Herman Rushin.

Like Jamie Patterson, Rushin is an African-American.

Like Patterson, his forebears migrated to Akron decades ago from the farm fields of the South in search of the middle-class prosperity that only those belching smokestacks could bring.

But Rushin, 57, came of age a generation earlier than Patterson -- when the Dream was still unfolding in thousands of Akron-area households, black and white.

Rushin's father came to Akron from Georgia in the 1930s, landed an unskilled job as a rubber-washer at Firestone and stayed there more than a quarter century.

After his own high school graduation in the mid-1950s, Rushin hired on as a machinist apprentice at Firestone and -- except for a trying, four-year layoff in the early 1980s -- he, too, has been there ever since.

With job and income secure, Rushin could marry an Akron teacher, buy a home, have children and spend the better part of three decades quietly building a solid, middle-class life for his family.

He sold his house on Packard Drive, near Buchtel High School, in the late 1970s and traded up for a spacious, new split-level on a wooded lot in Fairlawn Heights.

And despite a layoff shortly thereafter, he was recalled to work in time to help put his children through college.

All three graduated. His daughter is now a teacher in Houston. His older son is a salesman for a carpeting and tile company in Atlanta; his younger son, a graduate student in veterinary medicine at Michigan State University.

It's nearly a perfect illustration of how the American middle class was formed -- be it from Eastern European immigrant stock or from African- American.

Those Akron rubber jobs were especially important to African-Americans, Rushin said, because they allowed blacks to make deep inroads in the work force here during a time when racial discrimination was frequently overt. Not only was the pay good, he said, but also racial bias was less a factor than in other lines of work -- largely, Rushin believes, because of the unions.

He estimated that in the early 1970s, when tire production here was still booming, about 20 percent of the 4,000 workers in his plant were African- Americans.

Lifelong Akron resident James C. Hamilton saw what that meant -- not only for himself but for other area blacks as well.

"My dad worked in the rubber industry for 25 years," Hamilton said. He came here from Alabama in 1949 and led the way for his brothers, nephews and even cousins from the same hometown.

"You called them and told them, Hey, there are some jobs up here in Akron, Ohio. And they got on a bus and they came up here. And they stayed with you until they found work, which didn't take very long. In those days, you could get a job right away."

A tale told in numbers

In 1953, the year Herman Rushin graduated from West High School, there were more than 101,000 manufacturing jobs in Summit County, the postwar high-water mark for the area.

They were the lifeblood of a local economy that lured a huge migration of blacks, swelling Summit County's African-American population by 200 percent in the 40s and 50s.

But over the next 40 years, as the black population here continued to grow, nearly half of those manufacturing jobs vanished.

By 1991, when Jamie Patterson lost his job at Sally Beauty Supply, there were only 53,000 left.

In 1953, there were three manufacturing jobs in Summit County for every African-American living here.

Today, there is less than one.

Clearly, blacks weren't the only ones hurt. The entire region was devastated. But blacks -- the last group to climb on the jobs ladder and the first to get kicked off -- were hurt more.

From 1980 to 1990, one of every five manufacturing jobs held by a white person in the Akron area disappeared. Among blacks, one out of every four manufacturing jobs vanished.

In 1980, 32 percent of all working blacks here had jobs in manufacturing, while 24 percent were working in services.

By 1990, the ratio had reversed: Only 22 percent of working blacks were in manufacturing and 32 percent had service jobs -- jobs that on average were paying $8,000 a year less than the average manufacturing job had been paying blacks a decade earlier, after inflation.

Today, Rushin is one of only about two dozen blacks among the 165 members of the United Rubber Workers Local 7 at Firestone/Bridgestone.

"I've been blessed," Rushin said.

We all thought it'd be there forever.'

An altered playing field

Rushin's blue-collar world is mostly gone now -- replaced by a world where manufacturing positions once available to unskilled urban workers have given way to information-processing jobs in banking, public administration, law and other white-collar fields -- jobs that generally require education beyond high school even when they're on the low end of the income scale.

As employment director for the Akron Urban League, James Hamilton lives with the new reality every day, trying to find work for Akron-area blacks who remain very well-qualified for the kind of jobs that his father and Herman Rushin rode to prosperity a generation ago.

"When you were getting paid $12-$13 an hour at a job that required no advanced technical training, we were able to achieve a lot of growth -- buying homes, bringing money back into the community," Hamilton said. But where is there factory work anymore?'

He agrees with other local employment experts and with many economists nationally that the most overwhelming economic disadvantage facing blacks in America today, is what one expert described as a "fundamental mismatch" between their job skills and education levels and the needs of urban employers.

"When someone comes in with nothing but high school -- if they don't have some kind of technical skill or training -- right now there isn't a whole lot I can do for them," Hamilton said. "They want to work, but there is nothing there for them."

And more education frequently doesn't provide a realistic solution, either, said Fletcher, a supervisor in the Akron office of Ohio's Bureau of Employment Services, because even with training, there aren't enough jobs to go around.'

Many people who, like Patterson, have looked to higher education for an edge in the tight job market are overqualified for their jobs already, according to government statistics, if they have jobs at all.

"We can all get educated," Fletcher said. "But the jobs have to be there. The real issue is can we produce the jobs in the numbers needed to keep the middle class going?"

"Right now, the answer appears to be no." And with more and more women entering the job market, the impact on men -- especially black men -- has been profound.

The 1980s witnessed a 35 percent increase in the number of black men in this area holding seemingly top-level, white-collar jobs in managerial and professional occupations. But 60 percent of those new management-level jobs were less than full time, according to census data. And they were paying an average of $2,000 a year less in 1990 than a typical laborer's job was paying a decade earlier.

The bottom line? After accounting for inflation, the average working black man in the Akron area was making less in 1990 than in 1980. The number of black men making $20,000 or more a year actually declined by 20 percent, while the ranks of jobless grew. White males also were bringing home fewer real dollars in 1990 than in 1980 and were leaving the work force, too, although neither trend was nearly as pronounced as for blacks.

On the surface, at least, women appeared to being doing much better, both in the number working and in average pay. But even that apparent progress may mask some troubling developments.

Half of all new jobs taken by black women during the 80s were as white- collar technicians, office workers or sales clerks of various descriptions -- occupational classes where average pay actually declined in real terms from 1980 to 1990.

Significantly, three out of four of the new jobs in those areas were part time.

The part-time job explosion

Such numbers illustrate an ominous change in the American economy in the 1980s: The increasing replacement of full-time workers by part-time and temporary employees.

No one knows the exact size of the shift because part-time and temporary laborers don't fall into the traditional categories counted by the government. But experts agree that the "contingent work force" is exploding.

With such retailing giants as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Sears, Roebuck and Co. leading the way, part-time and temporary workers already make up as much as a third of the labor force and may outnumber traditional employees by the turn of the century.

One of the best measures of the change locally might be found in the Akron-area Yellow Pages, where only eight companies were listed in 1972 under the heading "Employment Contractors -- temporary help." Today, 49 are.

And there is no shortage of applicants using them, despite the lack of benefits and job security.

Dee Baily, head of the Akron-area industrial division of Manpower Inc., said the temporary business is booming mostly because global competition continues to pressure American businesses to cut labor costs. Many of the jobs are low-paying, she said -- minimum wage or just a little better. And at least half of her placements are black, even though African-Americans make up only about 25 percent of the city's population.

Such trends may help to explain why average black income grew at less than half the rate of average white income here during the 80s -- even though the number of working blacks increased more. And why the number of blacks in poverty increased 27 percent, compared to 19 percent for whites.

And they help explain why it has been so difficult for people like Patterson -- not to mention those worse off than he -- to better themselves economically.

The weight of welfare

Yvette Mays, 29, has farther to climb than most.

Poor and unemployed, a single mother of four who dropped out of Buchtel High School after her sophomore year, Mays is part of an expanding set of gloomy statistics in the African-American community as well. And in her efforts to put those statistics behind her, the last thing she needed was the kind of restructured economy she is facing today.

Mays and her children are among the more than 35,600 Summit County residents receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children. About 16,000 of those recipients are black. That's roughly 45 percent of all the welfare recipients and about 25 percent of the county's black population.

She went on public assistance in 1979 when she had her first child at age 15 and dropped out of school -- admittedly, the beginnings of many of her current problems. "I was young," she said. "When you are young, you don't think."

After two more children, Mays decided to put welfare behind her, but that's proved far easier to say than do.

She got her high school equivalency diploma in 1984 through a program offered by the Akron Urban League. But the jobs that got her -- first, a drugstore cashier, then a check proofreader at a local bank -- couldn't support her kids.

She went to Florida to live with an aunt and study cosmetology. But when she got back to Akron, her plans fell through because Ohio's license requirements for beauticians were stiffer than Florida's. She needed more schooling, but had no money, so Mays went back on welfare five years ago.

Today, her youngest child in kindergarten, Mays is trying again to get off welfare. This fall, she completed the Urban League's ASSET program, an 18-week course in basic business computing, and her hopes are running high.

"I would like to get a job in a big corporation," she said, "where I'm able to move up and go as far as I can go to realize my potential."

But even with the training, finding Mays a job may be a tall order. To make economic sense, the job must pay at least $6 an hour, for a 40-hour week, if it's to replace her welfare benefits.

Her ASSET computer training may qualify Mays for jobs at that level, but just barely. And as Jamie Patterson and many others are learning these days, being qualified and well-trained often isn't good enough.

And with the job market as tight as it is, local experts say, skin color only complicates the equation. It's one more hurdle a black applicant has to overcome, said the Urban League's Hamilton. But it's a hurdle that gets harder to measure as the jobs get scarcer.

"What's most frustrating to me is when I send six or seven people out in response to a job order and then none of them get considered for the position," Hamilton said.

"I ask, `What were you looking for? I sent you people who were qualified.' The answer I usually get is, `Sure, they were qualified, but we had 10 other people who were more qualified."'

Hamilton said blacks are often at a disadvantage in these exchanges because they lack a network of friends and relatives established in business who could help them get work when jobs are scarce.

"A company sends me a job order telling me there is a position available," Hamilton said. I'm going to send people. And these people are going to get their suits out of the cleaners. They're going to go to the barber shop or beauty shop. They want to look professional, they're thinking: I'm going to get this job.'

But the personnel manager already knows they are going to hire ... the daughter or son of so and so. I consider that a form of racism. We don't have those kind of connections. When production is booming and they need a lot of people is when blacks have opportunities.'

The tight job market not only affords ample opportunities for employers to discriminate if they choose, but it also makes it very difficult to prove when it is going on, said Courtney E. Calhoun, an investigator in the Akron regional office of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

Calhoun believes that racial discrimination is as bad as it has ever been. But with today's heightened competition between whites and blacks over a dwindling pool of quality jobs, he said, employers are simply cagier about it.

"You don't get employers who say, `We're not going to hire any blacks' or who fire whole groups of blacks," Calhoun said. "The discrimination has become very subtle."

He said one method is to hold blacks to a higher standard than white employees and to fire or refuse to promote those who don't meet it -- as was the claim in Patterson's case against Sally's.

Another is to ignore black applicants when there are whites with equal qualifications. Yet another is to bend work rules for whites, but not blacks.

Proof hard to come by

But how often any of these things go on is anybody's guess.

More than 2,500 complaints of racial discrimination in employment were received by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission in fiscal year 1992. But Calhoun said proving discrimination in these cases is difficult unless the employer actually documents a racist policy by mistake.

More often than not, he said, such incriminating evidence isn't there.

Of the 5,629 complaints closed by the commission in fiscal 1992, the charges were either withdrawn or determined to be unprovable in more than 70 percent of the cases.

"We have to prove with evidence and facts that an employer has discriminated against an employee," Calhoun said.

And that can be a dicey proposition -- especially when employment opportunities are so limited for everyone.

Hamilton cited a recent example of a company that had two openings -- for a personnel clerk and a secretary. Both were good paying positions -- between $7 and $9 an hour.

Hamilton sent 30 people to apply -- 15 for each post. All but one were black.

"I prescreened those people to ensure they had the qualifications that the company wanted," Hamilton said. "None of those people were hired."

Hamilton doesn't know the race of the people who were hired -- the company had advertised the positions elsewhere as well.

But even if they were white, and even if racial bias was a factor, the fact remains there were only two jobs available, Hamilton said.

"There are massive numbers of people out there," he said. "There are very few opportunities."

© Copyright 1993 The Akron Beacon Journal

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