The retail industry’s recent decline may have reached a “tipping point.” That was the conclusion of a recent report from the New York Times with potentially far-reaching consequences. Once-bustling shopping malls and department stores are now empty as millions of Americans do their shopping online through businesses that have warehouses but don’t operate storefronts. “This transformation is hollowing out suburban shopping malls, bankrupting longtime brands and leading to staggering job losses,” the Times reports. “More workers in general merchandise stores have been laid off since October, about 89,000 Americans. That is more than all the people employed in the coal industry.”
Retail jobs aren’t good jobs, per se; on average, they pay little, provide few benefits, and are notoriously unstable. But roughly 1 in every 10 Americans works in retail, which means millions rely on the industry for their livelihoods. As the Times notes, “The job losses in retail could have unexpected social and political consequences, as huge numbers of low-wage retail employees become economically unhinged, just as manufacturing workers did in recent decades.”
Despite this ongoing challenge and threat to millions of ordinary Americans, Washington is silent. What makes this even more striking is it comes at a time when politicians—and a multitude of voices in national media—are preoccupied with the prospects of blue-collar whites and the future of the Rust Belt. That contrast exists for several reasons, not the least of which is a simple one: Who does retail work in this country versus who does manufacturing work.
There is of course a lot of truth to this. Retail workers tend to be younger, women, people of color. Manufacturing work tends to be whiter, male, older. And yes, this absolutely frames the discussion of these issues. People don’t freak out about retail losses and you don’t see a million New York Times articles about these workers and you also don’t voices from the self-proclaimed left hold these workers up as why the Democratic Party has sold out the working class. Sexism and racism absolutely frames all of this.
It is however worth noting that the decline of manufacturing jobs is also the decline of generations of work that was once horrible, deadly, and destructive turned into well-paid, union jobs. And that is part of the story here too. Retail jobs are not worse than manufacturing jobs except for the fact that retail jobs have always been low paid and fights to turn manufacturing jobs into “good jobs” were successful. Of course, that process was racialized and gendered too because society valued the jobs of white males more than those of people of color and women. But part of the story is the decline of good paying jobs for the working class.
There’s also the issues that entire regional identities have been developed around these hard industrial jobs. That’s not just in West Virginia. Go to Butte and talk to people about copper or go to Michigan and talk about auto or go to Johnstown and Youngstown to talk about steel. The decline of these industries is the decline of a regional identity that retail never has created. And that regional identity is held by more than just the white men who the media are slobbering over to get their perspectives on Trump. It’s held by the white women working in those retail jobs and it’s held by the African-Americans who are very much not responding to this by voting for a white supremacists, but nonetheless experience the economic dislocation the loss of those steel jobs causes.
So, yes, absolutely the focus on industrial over retail is about race and gender. But it’s about more than that too, not in terms of issues that can somehow be separated from racism and sexism, but rather about how long histories of work that are infused with racism and sexism shape regional identity and thus affect voting patterns.