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Visiting Researcher Andrew Cherlin Releases a Working Paper on Racial Divisions in the Working Class

October 22, 2019

Andrew J. Cherlin, currently a visiting researcher at the Russell Sage Foundation, has released a new working paper, “In the Shadow of Sparrows Point: Racialized Labor in the White and Black Working Classes.” The paper is informed by Cherlin’s research on two adjacent communities in Maryland, one predominantly black and the other predominantly white, both distinguished by their large populations of former laborers at the Bethlehem Steel Company plant, which closed in 2012. While Dundalk, the white community, was heavily Republican in 2016, with 66 percent of votes for Trump and 34 percent for Hillary Clinton, 95 percent of black voters in Turner Station chose Clinton compared to just 5 percent who voted for Trump. This paper attempts to examine not just the fact of this racialized political disparity but the underlying racial and economic factors that led to this political outcome. 

Cherlin charts the history of workers’ relationship to the Bethlehem Steel Company’s plant at Sparrows Point, which at its height employed 30,000 people before dwindling to 2,000. The surrounding towns were plagued by severe residential segregation, and even the plant itself was segregated, with black workers relegated to more dangerous and lower-paying jobs, and separate facilities including parking lots and bathrooms. Cherlin’s research indicates that the black steelworkers employed at the plant used their relatively well-paying jobs to “…form stable families, buy homes, and educate their children.” 

One of the paper’s most important contributions is that it counteracts and complicates the prevailing narrative that white voters choosing Trump in the 2016 election can be attributed almost entirely to identity politics. Cherlin exposes the faulty logic in these arguments, showing how this political change may be attributed to the decline of access to high-quality manufacturing jobs that do not require higher education rather than to “identity threat alone.” Cherlin cites for example, support among white steelworkers for Trump’s imposition of tariffs on imported steel as indicative of economic rather than racial motivations. Drawing on in-depth interviews with both black and white steelworkers, Cherlin demonstrates the ways in which race and economics have always been intertwined not only in people’s accounts of their work at the plant, but also in their shifting political views. 

Andrew J. Cherlin is the Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Public Policy in the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University.  Cherlin’s research focuses on the sociology of families and public policy. He has published books and articles on topics such as working-class families, marriage and divorce, children's wellbeing, intergenerational relations, family policy, and welfare policy.  His most recent RSF book is Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America (2014).  His previous book is The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family Today (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). Visiting researchers are social scientists invited for brief fellowships while they conduct research relevant to the foundation’s priority areas.

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