Unemployment Still ‘Uneven’

It’s no surprise that, compared with other groups, African Americans have been hardest hit by the recession. Although the national average for unemployment has been declining since it peaked at 10.2% in October 2009, the unemployment rate for African Americans stands at 15.4%, a much higher rate than the 8.6% for whites and 12.4% for Hispanics. This trend is most evident in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas.

Take a look at metro areas that include battered cities like Detroit, which has an overall unemployment rate of 15.1%; Riverside, California, (13.3%); Las Vegas (12%); and Charlotte, North Carolina (11.7%), to name a few. A recent study published by the Economic Policy Institute, Uneven Pain: Unemployment by Metropolitan Area and Race, found that in 2009, in the 50 largest metropolitan areas African Americans were almost always more likely than their white counterparts to be unemployed. The report’s author, Algernon Austin, Ph.D., director of the Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy program for EPI, a nonprofit Washington, D.C., think tank, maintains that such trends continue to be a long-standing problem: “We can track black—white unemployment discrepancies fairly accurately from the 1970s. Its persistence is an indication that we have yet to take it seriously. Policymakers have not responded adequately, but that is, in part, because the general public has not prioritized it as a problem that needs addressing.”

Historically, African Americans have always experienced significantly higher unemployment rates. During times of economic contraction, large numbers of African Americans are hit harder and take a longer time to recover because many were already in a disadvantaged position. In the recession that lasted from July 1981 to November 1982, the national unemployment rate was 10.8%. During that same period, the unemployment rate for African Americans was a staggering 20.2%. Manufacturing, the sector that employed thousands of African American workers at the time, took a devastating hit.

In the report, Austin found that a black—white unemployment ratio of 2-to-1 was the norm. But in certain areas, such as Minneapolis and Memphis, Tennessee, there were black—white unemployment ratios of 3-to-1. Educational attainment was not an equalizer: African Americans with the same educational pedigree as that of other racial groups were still less likely to find employment in their fields. For example, the 2008 findings of the American Community Survey found that African Americans living in Minneapolis were three times as likely as whites to be unemployed, even though the two groups had similar levels of educational attainment. Although Austin asserts that African Americans must attain higher education credentials, he believes the underlying problem is anti-black discrimination in the labor market.

Gerald D. Jaynes, professor of economics and African American studies at Yale University and a member of the black enterprise Board of Economists, maintains that another reason for high African American joblessness is the concentration of black workers in unstable blue-collar positions. He also believes that geographic location is a factor, and cites Detroit. Once a thriving metropolitan area (with a large black population) that relied heavily on manufacturing, Detroit now has one of the country’s highest unemployment rates. Still, Jaynes says unemployment disparity is part of “the legacy of slavery. African Americans never had a chance at a good education or a chance to try high-skilled jobs.”

Soladé Rowe, a principal at Wesley, Brown & Bartle Co. Inc., a New York-based executive search firm that specializes in diverse talent, believes African Americans have made great strides in educational achievement, but that they need to engage in more effective networking. These connections, he maintains, can provide support and advocacy as well as yield opportunities: “The consequences of not leveraging these internal resources, particularly during tough economic times, can result in not having an advocate when layoff decisions are being rendered.”

Jaynes urges a two-pronged attack: “Improve education and skills, and create jobs.” He believes the creation of public sector jobs not unlike those of the Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression era would help alleviate the African American unemployment burden.

Targeted policies that produce new jobs, Austin asserts, will reduce unemployment in these metro areas. “We need a commitment to equal employment opportunity at the national, state, and local levels,” he says. “And we need stronger, more aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action.”