The American workplace in 1950: no yawning!

Posted on October 17, 2019. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

We were roaming around YouTube and found this educational filmstrip, as they used to call them, from 1950 called Office Etiquette. This Encyclopedia Britannica artifact begins as you’d expect: rows of white high-school girls typing away in typing class so they can be secretaries. But then a few real surprises are introduced. Seconds in, the camera pans out a little and you see two white boys on the other side of the room. Boys? Learning to type? Are they going to be secretaries? You’re so surprised to see the boys that at first you don’t notice what next becomes apparent: not only are the boys mixed in with the girls, but at least three black girls are mixed into the class. A filming location is never given, but the opening credits say that Office Etiquette is an “EBF Human Relations Film”; we were happily surprised to see sex- and race-integration in at least one U.S. high school in 1950.

That’s one of the reasons we always love watching these forgotten little films–they almost always reveal some challenge to your blanket presuppositions.

We follow our narrator, Joan Spencer, after graduation and into the job market. When she fills out her application, we see her write “None” under the “Experience” section. We instantly remembered the smarting embarrassment of this painful, first-time job applicant experience from our own past work lives. (We did notice, by stopping the film, that Joan writes “South High, Ridgeton” under “Education” – does any HP reader know where this was?)

Joan is hired, and quickly sizes up the office. We do, too. Was there anything worse than the early- and mid-century American office? Even at this small operation, there are 12 desks crammed into one open space, and everyone is just so exposed. The desks are pushed together to make long tables, so your desk isn’t even private. Each desk has a phone and a typewriter and nothing else. No personal items on your desk. No privacy. No way to do anything but work–no private phone calls, no drinking coffee, no eating, nothing at that desk. Everyone can see everything you do. And the noise; the racket of 12 people typing at once would have been deafening. Welcome to the real reason why the boss had an office with a door that closed. How would you be able to talk on the phone with all that cacophony of key-clacking?

On Joan’s first day, her supervisor meets her in the boss’ office and takes her to the place where she can leave her things. It’s hard to imagine going to work in an office and leaving your hat (of course) and coat and purse in an employee common area. Again, no access to any personal item at any time during the work day. It’s so dehumanizing. When Joan puts in extra time at home, after work, to learn all the forms the company uses, she sits at a desk or table with a lovely bouquet of flowers in a crystal vase. No such luck at work.

Joan is shown to her seat and is so nervous she can barely look at the woman who is working one foot away from her at “her” desk. But she reports that “the girls” took her to lunch that first day, and one can’t help but sigh for the days when office workers took an hour for lunch, offsite, rather than eating at their desks while they worked. Joan makes friends, and is quickly written into the list of the office bowling team members.

Joan’s first screw-up is one that, again, we can all relate to: she makes an error in her dictation, and when the unbelievably genial executive who dictated it shows her the error, Joan argues with him about it, saying she is right. She quickly learns to own her mistakes “instead of arguing about them or offering alibis. I learned to ask when I wasn’t sure, instead of making a wild guess.” This is indeed workplace wisdom.

So is the hilarious scene where one of the “girls” eats a candy at her desk in the most incredibly messy way, with great bravado.

But then we get into lessons from the past as a foreign country. The lesson “use office hours to do office work” is illustrated by an older man slyly lifting up the corner of an enormous ledger to read a newspaper hidden underneath. He reads the sports page for approximately 2.3 seconds, then puts the ledger back down. Again, we can’t emphasize enough that you are no longer a human being once you sit down to work, and every second that isn’t spent at lunch must be spent working. This is easier to enforce when everyone can see everything you’re doing at all times.

One young woman types a love letter, one makes a personal telephone call. At least both these people are truly wasting company time. But then a man is shown–brace yourself–stopping his writing for 1.4 seconds to yawn. He did not “manage his time so he could put in a full day’s work.” Stopping work to yawn is an unforgivable demonstration of slacking.

Joan has to bust on Jimmy later on, who reads something on her desk in a nosy way. “You know you shouldn’t do that, Jimmy,” she says, and he responds “Do whaaaaat?” in a very annoying way.

She works her way up the ladder to become the boss’ personal secretary, then head of HR. Again, it’s refreshing to see a young woman negotiate a business call while the boss is busy, and be promoted to top management. It’s sad that this is as uncommon in 2019 as it was in 1950. The film ends with Joan accepting the meager application of another young woman fresh out of typing class. We have the feeling that this new girl will also succeed, and the overall attitude of the film is uplifting. The office was physically oppressive, but in this filmstrip, it at least offers some equality.

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Race, segregation, and Census 2010—what does it mean?

Posted on April 4, 2011. Filed under: American history, Immigration | Tags: , , |

In our final installment in the very short series on race and Census 2010, we try to draw some conclusions about segregation and integration in the U.S. today.

It may seem contradictory that many white Americans feel their towns and neighborhoods are home to more non-white residents than ever before at the same time that non-white segregation is holding steady or, for Asian Americans, increasing slightly. If a town goes from 90% white to 77% white, that is an appreciable, visible change—but it’s still a white majority that should be shrinking faster, given the pace of Latino and Asian immigration.

According to The Persistence of Segregation in the Metropolis: New Findings from the 2010 Census (which is the official report by Logan and Stults, as referenced in part 2 of this series), “the typical white lives in a neighborhood that is 75% white, 8% black, 11% Hispanic, and 5% Asian. This represents a notable change since 1980, when the average whites’ neighborhood was 88% white, but it is very different from the makeup of the metropolis as a whole.” How is the average white American’s experience different from the “metropolis as a whole”?

The experience of minorities is very different. For example, the typical black lives in a neighborhood that is 45% black, 35% white, 15% Hispanic, and 4% Asian. The typical Hispanic lives in a neighborhood that is 46% Hispanic, 35% white, 11% black and 7% Asian. The typical Asian lives in a neighborhood that is 22% Asian, 49% white, 9% black, and 19% Hispanic.” 

There is an interesting chart that appears after this illustrating this data, which basically shows how likely you are to experience white neighbors according to your race. Asians’ neighbors are 50% white, Hispanics’ and black Americans’ neighbors are 35% white. White Americans’ neighbors are 77% white. Asian Americans are the only one of the four groups who do not live in neighborhoods in which they are the majority. In neighborhoods where most Asian people live, whites and Hispanics make up the majority of residents.

Assessing segregation and integration data by city requires a lot of background information. While black-white segregation fell dramatically in both New Orleans and Kansas City, in New Orleans it was because so many black people were forced to leave the city when Hurricane Katrina destroyed their neighborhoods, while in Kansas City the integration has no negative, temporary, “act of God” backstory—the people of the city are just integrating more.

The historian has to consider why it is black Americans who are still least likely to integrate in large numbers with white Americans. There’s never one reason. It’s a combination of factors, including the fact that Hispanic and Asian Americans are more likely to be considered newcomers who might adopt white culture, and therefore be acceptable, while black Americans are seen as possessing a unique culture that a) will never change and b) is diametrically opposed to white culture. The well-documented centuries of slavery and Jim Crow that describe black-white relations lead to suspicion and resentment, fear and anger on both sides, while the identically horrible racist campaigns against Asians in the late 19th- and early-to-mid-20th centuries are not as well-known outside the Asian American population, and therefore Asian Americans have more of a “blank slate”. Housing discrimination is still an issue, or course, most seriously for black Americans, but also for Latinos and Asian Americans. 

While color works against black Americans, language works against Hispanics. For at least 170 years, and maybe since 1700, Americans have inveighed against foreigners coming in and refusing to speak English, trying to overthrow English, working as agents of a foreign government. So it goes with Latino immigrants today. Latinos are moving away from their Latino immigrant neighborhoods—in 1980, 55% of Latinos lived in majority Latino neighborhoods, while in 2010 40% do. That’s quite a drop. And data shows that as Latinos raise families in the U.S., they are very likely to stop speaking Spanish entirely. A second-generation Asian American is far more likely to speak an Asian language than is a second-generation Latino American to speak Spanish.

This is just the barest summary of part of the information in the 2010 Census. Studying the Census is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking things you can do. This latest window into who we are as Americans has its depressing and its uplifting aspects. We have to take our cue from its findings and do what we can to keep integration moving steadily upward, and segregation vanishing into the past.

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Segregation and Census 2010

Posted on April 1, 2011. Filed under: American history, Immigration | Tags: , , |

In this second installment in a very short series on the 2010  U.S. Census results, we’ll look at one parsing of that data by John Logan of Brown University and Brian Stults of Florida State University . The focus here, at Census Analysis: Nation’s diversity grows, but integration slows, is black, Latino, white, and Asian residential patterns.

How is integration slowing? Here are the bullet findings:

  • Black-white segregation averaged 65.2 in 2000 and 62.7 now.
  • Hispanic-white segregation was 51.6 in 2000 and 50 today.
  • Asian-white segregation has grown from 42.1 to 45.9.

As Logan and Stults point out, white Americans basically live in mostly white neighborhoods—77% white. That is down from 88% white in 1980, but still pretty segregated. Black and Latino Americans live in black and Latino neighborhoods, and Asian Americans, whose integration rate into white neighborhoods had been growing, now increasingly live in Asian or other non-white neighborhoods.

Black and Latino neighborhoods are becoming even more homogenous. I happened to hear Dr. Logan on the radio explain it this way: if, in 1990, you were a Latino, you lived in a neighborhood that was mostly Latino, but not entirely. It might be 50% Latino, 30% black, 20% Asian. But in 2010, that same neighborhood is likely to be %70 Latino, 20% black, and 10% Asian. The same goes for black Americans–their neighborhoods are increasingly less racially diverse.

This is explicable when it comes to Latinos because of increased Latino immigration–there are more Latinos coming into the U.S. and moving into majority Latino neighborhoods. (This is particularly true in the southwest.) One in 6 Americans is now Latino; this is reflective of increased Latin American immigration since the 1970s.

In the case of black Americans, the increasing homogeneity of black neighborhoods may be due to the falling rate of Asian integration into white neighborhoods and the slow pace of Latino integration. Again, on the radio Dr. Logan said that white neighborhoods are usually integrated first by Asian people, then by Latino people, and then by black people. If fewer Asian and Latino people are integrating, there is less integration by black people.

It will be interesting to learn in a few years, when sociologists conclude their investigations, why Asian American segregation is increasing, and how quickly Latinos move out of new-immigrant neighborhoods into mixed neighborhoods. Every new immigrant group starts out in homogenous immigrant neighborhoods—every major American city has its Little Italy, Chinatown, Little India, etc. It’s natural to live amongst people who speak your language and share your experiences. But then they begin to move out, and to integrate into non-immigrant society. The fact that black Americans remain least likely to integrate is a red flag to all Americans, a wake-up call saying we all need to get over the slave-era idea that black Americans are different—too different—from all other Americans to assimilate.

While integration should move faster, I remain optimistic. At least it continues to happen. As usual, the U.S. leads the way in integrating people of literally every nation, race, culture, religion, and ethnicity in the world into one American people. As we see European nations just now beginning, in the last two decades, to try to cope with serious immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and struggling with race riots, protests, and fascist movements as a result, we remember that it is always hard for human beings to live together, and it takes a concerted effort to make that possible in this nation—an effort we have to continually renew.

Next time: summarizing the data

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