Race, Labor, and the Future of Work

Oxford Handbook of Race and Law, Eds. Emily Houh, Khiara Bridges, Devon Carbado, 2020

18 Pages Posted: 21 Jan 2021

See all articles by Ifeoma Ajunwa

Ifeoma Ajunwa

Emory University School of Law; Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Date Written: August 10, 2020


Amidst the full-throttle optimism surrounding the promise of automation to revolutionize the workplace and transform society for the better, there are concerns about the potential of such technologies to also widen the gulf of economic inequality. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now iconic “I have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Although the March is now mostly remembered for its platitudes on multiracial unity, the true driving force of the March was to explicitly link the economic justice demands of workers to the demand for civil rights for racial minorities. And at the time of his assassination, Dr. King was in Memphis to march with sanitation workers and garbage collectors who had been spurred into action after unsafe working conditions led to the death of their colleagues. In the coming future of work, lax labor protections present a dire situation for workers who are racial minorities. While undoubtedly there are new labor markets and novel work opportunities created by the technological capability for decentralized management and remote work, the rhetoric around automation tends to elide the disparities between those who enjoy its benefits and those who bear the burden of being its draught horses. This chapter examines how race factors into the demographics of the workforce of the gig economy and other precarious jobs that are creating a planetary labor market – opening up new labor markets in developing nations but without the same labor protections as those in economically privileged countries. The chapter observes that racial minorities disproportionately perform the precarious work created by the gig economy and that the jobs at danger for full automation, such as retail and care work, are jobs held by white women and racial minorities. Meanwhile, technological advancements such as automated hiring and wearable technologies also portend that the future of work may have lob-sided benefits. Governmental action is necessary to ensure that the future of work is not a dystopia for all workers, but especially for more vulnerable workers of color.

Suggested Citation

Ajunwa, Ifeoma, Race, Labor, and the Future of Work (August 10, 2020). Oxford Handbook of Race and Law, Eds. Emily Houh, Khiara Bridges, Devon Carbado, 2020, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3670785 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3670785

Ifeoma Ajunwa (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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