Drucker and the Complexities of Race

The classic African American route to middle-class income, a unionized industrial job, is disappearing in the "knowledge economy"

Long before so much of the nation became fixated on what was being preached inside black churches on Sunday mornings, Peter Drucker would go on occasion and listen for himself.

It was the late 1930s, and Drucker had just landed in New York, having fled the Nazis. Whenever he happened to spend the weekend in Washington, Drucker recalled years later, he would sneak into Rankin Chapel to be "shaken and moved" by Howard Thurman, the chaplain at Howard University. His was the kind of voice, said Drucker, that "reached the inner core of one's being."

Thurman's soul-stirring oratory, as well as relationships Drucker forged with other black intellectuals of the era, left quite an impression on him. After all, he always viewed the importance of management as transcending the corporate arena to reach into all segments of society.

Indeed, Drucker found the racial discrimination that permeated his adopted country so disturbing, he once turned down "the most attractive academic job" that ever came his way—a deanship at Emory University in Atlanta. "It was offered to me in the late 1940s, when the South was still fully segregated, and I had to say no," Drucker recounted in his autobiography, Adventures of a Bystander.

Obama Resonates

It is impossible to know which candidate, if any, Drucker would have supported in the 2008 Presidential race; he was tough to pin down politically. Not long before he died in 2005 at age 95, he praised a Democrat (Harry Truman) and a Republican (Ronald Reagan) as the two most effective Presidents of the previous 100 years.

But I imagine Drucker would have felt a strong connection with Senator Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) speech this month on "the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through." Drucker would have understood Obama's take, that the incendiary language used by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—while, on some level, "simply inexcusable"—was fueled by a real and powerful anger with roots that run deep.

"Slavery was not a mistake, but a sin—and the fruits of the father's sins are borne by the sons for seven generations," Drucker said in a 1991 speech at the Economic Club of Washington. "We are now in the fourth generation," he added, alluding to the need for at least another six decades to overcome this shameful legacy.

Knowledge and Work

At the same time, Drucker would have surely admired Obama's frankness in asserting that, too often, African Americans have failed to face up to "our own complicity in our condition." As Drucker saw things, this failure was particularly severe in terms of the most sweeping economic development of the last half-century: the move from manual, blue-collar jobs to "knowledge work," in which people are called upon to use their heads more than their hands.

By the early 1990s, Drucker declared, this transition to knowledge work was well on its way to completion in the U.S.—and, with it, there had emerged the realization that education is "the center of the knowledge society, and schooling its key institution." This new reality, said Drucker, has "largely been accepted (except in the black community) as appropriate or, at least, as inevitable."

Needless to say, a lot of thinking went into that parenthetical clause.

"In the 50 years since the Second World War, the economic position of African Americans in America has improved faster than that of any other group in American social history—or in the social history of any country," Drucker wrote in a 1994 article for the Atlantic Monthly. "Three-fifths of America's blacks rose into middle-class incomes; before the Second World War the figure was one-twentieth.

"But half that group rose into middle-class incomes and not into middle-class jobs," Drucker continued. "Since the Second World War more and more blacks have moved into blue-collar unionized mass-production industry—that is, into jobs paying middle-class and upper-middle-class wages while requiring neither education nor skill. These are precisely the jobs, however, that are disappearing the fastest."

Shifting Economic Status

This path—so tempting but, ultimately, so tenuous—helps explain why the overall economic status of blacks today measures just 56% of that of whites, according to the National Urban League.

"The economically rational thing for a young black in postwar America was not to stay in school and learn; it was to leave school as early as possible and get one of the plentiful mass-production jobs," Drucker concluded. "As a result, the fall of the industrial worker has hit America's blacks disproportionately hard—quantitatively, but qualitatively even more. It has blunted what was the most potent role model in the black community in America: the well-paid industrial worker with job security, health insurance, and a guaranteed retirement pension—yet possessing neither skill nor much education."

The obvious remedy is to improve high-quality educational opportunities for black children and adults alike. But, again, the past has complicated the present. In the 1950s and 1960s, schools were integrated—an act that Drucker appreciated deeply. "Racial discrimination had to be corrected, had to be expiated," he said. But in doing so, many schools wound up "putting social ends ahead of the goal of learning," Drucker wrote in 1993's Post-Capitalist Society. The upshot was that the education system actually undermined many of the very children it had set out to help.

The way forward, Drucker implored, is to create a new culture "in which the most disadvantaged children learn because it is expected of them and demanded of them"—an audacious cry for hope, if there ever was one.

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