The Nonwhite Working Class

By July 5, 2019 July 8th, 2019 Editors' Choice
“If there was something to do in this town, this town would prosper, because there’s a lot of loyal people here, a lot of good people,” said Tre Lewis, who lives with his family on Youngstown’s south side.

“If there was something to do in this town, this town would prosper, because there’s a lot of loyal people here, a lot of good people,” said Tre Lewis, who lives with his family on Youngstown’s south side. Henry Grabar

Talking to the people in Youngstown, Ohio, that the national media usually ignores.

By Henry Graber, The Slate

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio—In 1984, Lewis Macklin stood up at a community meeting and argued that city officials should shut down his high school. It had been seven years since Black Monday—when Youngstown Sheet & Tube announced it was closing its largest factory, costing 5,000 people their jobs and setting off a chain of plant shutdowns that sent the city’s population into free fall. Youngstown could no longer fill its schools, so one would have to close.

But the city did not want to shut down Macklin’s school, Wilson High, which was mostly white. Officials wanted to close the nearby black school instead. Macklin, who is black, recently told me the city’s argument was, “ ‘Keep Wilson open—if you close it down, the white community will move. We’ll take our children and we’ll move.’ ” That argument won. The city shut down the black school, South High, in 1993, and its students were sent to the district’s remaining schools. White families continued to flee the south side anyway, and by 2016, students in the Youngstown School District were 15 percent white and 64 percent black.

Like many buildings in Youngstown, South High School stands abandoned—a stately, stone Beaux-Arts building whose afterlife as a charter school never stuck. The hedges are trimmed, but the flagpole is bare. For Macklin, now a reverend at a nearby Baptist church, the building is a reminder of how deindustrialization, and the response to it, hurt not just the city of Youngstown, but the city’s black community in particular.

If you’ve heard about Youngstown lately, it is probably because the city has been held up—over, and over, and over again—as the locus of white working-class drift from the Democratic Party to Donald Trump. “The epicenter of the Trump phenomenon,” the public policy theorist Justin Gest called the city. It was here, the story goes, that Trump stoked white anxiety, pitched cures to roiling crowds, and brought white union workers into the GOP’s column for the first time in decades, where they appear to be staying put. Democrats underperformed in the region during the blue wave in 2018, and Youngstown will be represented by a Republican in the Ohio state Senate for the first time in 60 years.

“There’s no boom in Youngstown, but blue-collar workers are sticking with Trump,” the New York Times announced last month, in the latest of a series of Trump Country dispatches on the nation’s white working class. These heartland safaris exhibit a common media oversight: the compulsion to paint white, small-town manufacturing workers as the face of the working class, which is in reality mostly urban, racially diverse, and more likely to make burgers than automobiles.

In Youngstown, these stories exhibit another oversight: Youngstown is not white. In contrast to the largely white Mahoning Valley, for which it often serves as an unthinking stand-in, the city itself is 43 percent black and majority-minority. The mayor is black. In more than a dozen interviews in Youngstown’s black community, I could not find anyone who knew a black Trump supporter, let alone was one. But not all of the people I talked to voted for Hillary Clinton, either.


These heartland safaris exhibit a common media oversight: the compulsion to paint white, small-town manufacturing workers as the face of the working class.


The collapse of manufacturing in the Mahoning Valley may have provoked a white identity crisis that the national media can’t get enough of, but the upheaval was more severe for black Americans. As Sherry Linkon and John Russo, onetime co-directors of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, wrote in Steeltown U.S.A., their portrait of Youngstown after the fall: With less money saved, smaller pensions, and less valuable homes, black families, “suffered disproportionately when the mills closed.”

And they keep losing ground. In 1980, according to data provided by Jacob Whiton at the Brookings Institution, the median black family in the Youngstown area made 18 percent less than the median black family nationally; today that family underearns by 35 percent. In 2017, the median black household in the city of Youngstown, where most of the region’s black population lives, makes $20,646—little more than half the income of the median black family nationally.

It has been a slow half-century since the crisis began. The city’s longtime black residents remember what, in retrospect, look like the good times. On a recent morning, I sat in a bar called the Pit Stop with a group of older, black men who have been meeting for breakfast for more than a decade. “Jack’s Jury,” they call themselves, after Jack Carter, a former Ohio Department of Transportation worker and the group’s mischievous, raspy-voiced patriarch. There were two words I was told not to mention as we sipped coffee: work and Trump.

This used to be a white bar. “Ten years ago, I couldn’t walk in here,” said Carl Bryant, a former TV newsman. The group is on its fifth location, after three previous meeting spots closed and one was sold.

This is Youngstown’s golden generation of black Americans—men who grew up here when wages were decent enough, the neighborhoods were (briefly) integrated, and the schools were good. Sylvester Patton worked at the General Motors plant in Lordstown in the late ’60s, making Chevy Vegas, a car that no longer gets built, and served five terms in the state Legislature. “Youngstown was good to me,” he reminisced. But, like many Youngstown residents of his generation, he’s watched his children move away in search of opportunity.

Today, Youngstown is a city of 65,000 that has one hospital and barely one full-service supermarket. The unemployment rate for black workers here is triple what it is for whites. And the poverty rate in the city is 36 percent—twice as high as the county figure. For residents who remember the good years, there’s a feeling of whiplash. A good job now pays $15 an hour. It used to be $30.

Whatever went wrong for the white working class here went even worse for their black counterparts. Blacks were hurt by job sprawl that saw work opportunities move from the heart of town into distant suburbs, where housing racism kept black workers out. They were hurt by the racist legacy of the unions here, which left them with worse jobs than their white peers and made them more likely to be dismissed first when downsizing occurred. They were hurt by urban renewal and the wave of declining home values, public services, amenities, and school quality. They were stuck in the city as white flight hollowed out the neighborhoods. They were hurt by the whiteness of the county Democratic Party, which they say has shown little interest in the city’s problems.

The story of Tre Lewis, who lives in a modest, well-kept house with his family on the south side, is typical. Lewis was raised on the city’s east side, where his father was a union metalworker for four decades at Falcon Foundry in Lowellville. He works at a cleaner’s. His daughter works at Wendy’s. “If there was something to do in this town, this town would prosper, because there’s a lot of loyal people here, a lot of good people,” he said as we chatted in his front yard. “But there’s nothing to do. There’s no jobs here. The only jobs we had they just closed.”

He means Lordstown, the enormous GM plant 16 miles west of the city that General Motors closed in March. The saga of the Lordstown plant has obsessed Donald Trump, who had criticized GM for layoffs at the plant and boasted on Twitter of “GREAT NEWS FOR OHIO” when the company said it was in discussions to sell the 6-million-square-foot facility to a 99-person company called Workhorse. In July 2017, Trump held a campaign-style rally in downtown Youngstown that drew 7,000 people to the city’s convention center. “Don’t sell your homes,” he told the crowd, promising new jobs at the valley’s abandoned plants.

Talk like that was what swayed some white Democrats in Mahoning County, which includes Youngstown. In 2016, the number of registered Republicans here went from 14,663 before the GOP primary to 35,867 afterward. For the first time since 1972, the Democratic candidate failed to crack 50 percent. Trump deserves credit. But also important was the lack of turnout for Clinton. Trump improved on Mitt Romney’s performance in the county by 11,000 votes. Clinton underperformed Obama by twice that margin.

Lewis was one of those people who did not vote for president, for the first time in his adult life. He has plenty to say about why he finds Donald Trump appalling: his comments about women, his deportation of a local Jordanian business owner, his petty feuds. But he found little to like in Hillary Clinton; he told me that he felt she was hiding something. Other black voters in Youngstown told me they didn’t like her stance on trade or abortion, or remembered her “superpredators” speech, or her husband’s crime and welfare bills.

“They need to give a sense of reality, not false hope,” said Mayor Jamael Tito Brown, when we spoke on the phone about how the Democrats could counter Trump’s appeal in the county. “The reality is we have tough economic issues. But in a place like Youngstown, Ohio, we don’t just want a campaign speech every 3½ years.” I asked the mayor which presidential candidates he liked, and he did not hesitate: “Tim Ryan” —the local congressmen, who is currently polling at 0.5 percent. “He understands what we’re going through.”

One evening, I popped into the end of a meeting of the local chapter of the NAACP at the invitation of Mike McNair, who runs the city’s 80-year-old black newspaper, the Buckeye Review. We talked about racism in the labor market, the flight of the city’s young, ambitious people of color, and the president.

“If women had had any idea that that man would walk women’s rights as far back as he walked them, they would have stood in line for a week to vote for Hillary, regardless of what their feelings were for her politically,” observed Monica Hoskins-Vann, an insurance agent and the vice president of the local chapter of the Links Inc., an organizing group for women of color.

“The good news,” said Kenneth Simon, the pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church on Hillman Street, “is the Democratic Party should be able to run Bozo the Clown and win.”

The bad news is that no one had voted in the city’s recent primaries for local elected office. Turnout was about 10 percent. Helen Youngblood, a longtime leader of the AFSCME local, remembered talking to a friend about this: “When I ask, ‘Why can’t we get these people out to vote?,’ the person says to me, ‘Helen, when you get up in the morning and you don’t know if your baby is going to have milk, then your priority of the day isn’t getting out to vote.’ ” Poverty, she reasoned, was crushing people’s will to participate in the political process.

But several people I spoke to said there is also reason to blame Democrats, or as Sybil West called them when I paid a visit to her east side home on a recent afternoon, “the wimpocrats.” The party has been as absent here as Donald Trump is present, West told me, and the state’s GOP-led gerrymandering and poverty have further sapped people’s enthusiasm. “Most people are feeling apathetical,” she surmised, “because they’re saying, ‘It’s not going to do any good.’ ”

A local organizer who lives on the city’s east side, West epitomizes her generation of black Youngstown: She grew up with white neighbors and friends. Her steelworker father told her brother he’d kill him before he let him work in the mills, hoping he’d rise to something better. She worked at General Electric in the city (closed) and then for 25 years in nearby Warren for General Electric’s Ohio Lamp Plant (closed). Now, watching over her granddaughter on a summer afternoon, she considered the white cultural crisis in the Mahoning Valley.

“It hurts them because they’re not used to cutting corners,” she said as we sat in her kitchen, MSNBC humming from the living-room TV. “Opioids, suicides, people can’t figure out how to survive. We”—meaning, black Americans—“have always had to live our lives on Plan A and Plan B. We may not have had much, but we learned how to plan. We’re a race that was forced to live with less.”

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