Abstract: Not Working a Smile: A Sociohistorical Look at Black Men's Underemployment in American Service Businesses

Clive Muir


This presentation provides a historical view of the effect of the growing demand for soft skills and interpersonal attributes on African American men's chances for employment in the service sector of the American economy. There is the widely held view that black men lack the ability to interact with others in an amiable manner. As one business owner responded to researchers, "If they don't smile, don't hire them." For decades black men were able to find jobs in steel and auto factories in northern cities and sustain middle-class lifestyles for their families; but those physical, labor-intensive jobs that required few pleasantries have largely disappeared. Now, job training centers in many hard-hit cities train men in acquiring soft-skills and removing the macho, game face they are known for. But moving from factory-face to friendly-face is easier said than learned for many of these men. Furthermore, the business literature and current training practices largely ignore the centuries of scrutiny and ridicule African American men have endured regarding their looks and mannerisms.