As tens of thousands of public sector workers in Wisconsin turn Madison into Tahrir Square, I'm nagged by a question: How much of the current demonization of public workers is racialized?

Yes, I get that this is plainly a budget debate: States are broke and the new surge of conservatives in governor's offices and legislatures would far rather cut pensions and benefits than raise taxes. And those politicians have convinced many struggling constituents that it's their own pocketbooks versus the paychecks of public servants. That tension is heightened by residents' frustrations with public services that have been so hobbled in recent decades that they often no longer work well--like, say, public schools.

I also get that, as many progressive commenters have noted, this is a straight out political fight. We're witnessing the culmination of a decades' long effort to destroy unions as the sole remaining check to corporate power in both federal and state government. Corporatists are plainly winning that fight, and the labor movement hasn't always been its own best advocate. A Pew poll done in the first week of this month found public opinion of unions worse than it's been in a quarter century--though, it found similarly historic lows for business.

But as governors and columnists have painted pictures of overpaid, underworked public employee in recent weeks, I have also seen the faint outline of familiar caricatures--welfare queens, Cadillacs in the projects, Mexican freeloaders. It's hard to escape the fact that, in the states and localities with the biggest budget crunches (New Jersey, California, New York...) public employees are uniquely black.

That's an anecdotal observation on my part, but Steven Pitts at UC Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education is amid a study of black employment in the public sector. He shared some preliminary data with Colorlines that suggests these jobs are in fact significantly relevant to black America. Pitts' data is thus far national, meaning it includes the public sector in largely white states (in the Plains and New England, for instance). But even with that tempering effect, some numbers leap out: 

  • 14.5 percent of all public sector workers in the nation are black, making the sector second only to health and education services as the most heavily black workforce. In all other sectors, black workers hover around or below 10 percent. Again, if you took out states with disproportionate white populations or even focused on states with budget crises, I bet you'd see an even greater disparity.
  • More than one in five black workers are employed in public administration, as are 23.3 percent of black women in the workforce. That compares to just under 17 percent of all white workers.
  • Black women in the public sector make significantly less than everyone else. Their median wage is $15.50 an hour; the sector's median wage overall is $18.38. White men make $21.24.

Notably, none of these wages is off the charts relative to the private sector. As even the loudest critics of public employee unions have acknowledged, public workers are not uniquely well paid, even when you include benefits. The pensions are the real tension point--or, the one elected officials are blaming, at least.

So what's all of this data mean for the newly raging debate over public sector employees? Frankly, I don't know. We'll get some smart folks to talk about it on the site next week. But Pitts' data suggests that, at minimum, this debate is one that is uniquely relevant to a black community that is already looking at more than 15 percent unemployment, when measured conservatively.