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Arbritraging a Discriminatory Labor Market: Black Workers at the Ford Motor Company, 1918-1947


  • Christopher L. Foote
  • Warren C. Whatley
  • Gavin Wright


Before World War II, the Ford Motor Company was virtually alone in its hiring of black auto workers. If this was because other employers would not hire blacks, then the terms of employment at Ford might differ for blacks and whites. This paper uses Ford's own personnel data to test for racial differences in its terms of employment. We find that though entry wages for young workers did not differ by race, entry wages rose with age for whites but not for blacks. After being hired, most black and white workers received similar wage increases, making Ford jobs very attractive to black workers. Evidence suggests that Ford profited even without an explicit racial differential by hiring only the best black workers available and by disproportionately assigning them to the most disagreeable jobs. Ford's rigorous factory discipline facilitated racial integration and set Ford apart from other firms. While many aspects of Ford's policies were strongly progressive, Ford's response to its labor-relations constraints may have helped to perpetuate stereotypes that blacks were suited only for grimy and unpleasant work.

Suggested Citation

  • Christopher L. Foote & Warren C. Whatley & Gavin Wright, 1998. "Arbritraging a Discriminatory Labor Market: Black Workers at the Ford Motor Company, 1918-1947," Harvard Institute of Economic Research Working Papers 1819, Harvard - Institute of Economic Research.
  • Handle: RePEc:fth:harver:1819

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Donohue, John J, III & Heckman, James, 1991. "Continuous versus Episodic Change: The Impact of Civil Rights Policy on the Economic Status of Blacks," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 29(4), pages 1603-1643, December.
    2. Sundstrom, William A., 1992. "Last Hired, First Fired? Unemployment and Urban Black Workers During the Great Depression," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 52(02), pages 415-429, June.
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    1. repec:eee:exehis:v:68:y:2018:i:c:p:95-118 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Depew, Briggs & Sørensen, Todd A., 2013. "The elasticity of labor supply to the firm over the business cycle," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 24(C), pages 196-204.
    3. Depew, Briggs & Sorensen, Todd A., 2011. "Elasticity of Supply to the Firm and the Business Cycle," IZA Discussion Papers 5928, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    4. Callaway, Brantly & Collins, William J., 2018. "Unions, workers, and wages at the peak of the American labor movement," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 68(C), pages 95-118.
    5. Lanning, Jonathan A., 2014. "A search model with endogenous job destruction and discrimination: Why equal wage policies may not eliminate wage disparity," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 26(C), pages 55-71.

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