President Obama earned well-deserved accolades for his dogged fight to make a much needed, and long overdue comprehensive health care reform a reality. The president can and should savor the victory and feat. But there’s another equally hard battle that desperately needs to be fought, and that’s the fight to dent the massive and chronic joblessness of young blacks. The crisis is inching close to epidemic proportions. The National Urban League has urged the Obama administration to spend billions more to train and to put young blacks to work. The money is desperately needed and needed now.
The one out of three young blacks out of work matches the figure for joblessness at the peak of the 1930s Great Depression. The jobless figure for young blacks, especially young black males, is not much different than what it was even before the economic meltdown. During the Clinton era economic boom, the unemployment rate for young black males was double—and in some parts of the country—triple that of white males.
Three years ago, when the job crisis among young blacks was marginally less severe than the present, a stunned Congressional Black Caucus and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reflexively blamed President George Bush. They claimed that his fiscal and economic policies have resulted in the loss of millions of jobs during his years in office. They demanded that he radically increase funding for job training programs and provide more tax incentives for the working poor. Bush did none of these things. Neither did Pelosi and the Congressional Black Caucus. They did not vigorously push for a crisis job training and creation program for young black males. The crisis continued to mount.
The bitter new reality is that the job crisis is no longer Bush’s crisis. It’s Obama’s. This requires a candid look at why so many young blacks are unemployed and why they have stayed unemployed so long even when times were relatively good. State and federal cutbacks in job training and skills programs, the brutal competition for low- and semi-skilled service and retail jobs from immigrants, and the refusal of many employers to hire those with criminal records have been prime culprits in driving the numbers higher and higher. The high number of miserably failing inner-city public schools also fuels the unemployment crisis. They have turned thousands of blacks into educational cripples. These students are desperately unequipped to handle the rapidly evolving and demanding technical and professional skills in the public sector and the business world of the 21st Century.
There’s an even bigger reason for the stubbornly high numbers that defy reason in the good times, a reason that conservatives routinely deride, and liberals downplay out of political fear. That’s the persistent and deep racial discrimination in the workplace. The mountain of federal and state anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action programs and successful employment discrimination lawsuits give the public the impression that job discrimination is a relic of a shameful, racist past.
Yet recent studies have found that black men without a criminal record are less likely to find a job than white men with criminal records. This is despite the volumes of state and federal laws that ban racial discrimination. The Urban League’s annual State of Black America reports, a 2005 Human Rights Watch report and the numerous discrimination complaints reviewed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the past decade reveal that employers have devised endless dodges to evade anti-discrimination laws. This includes rejecting applicants based on their names or areas of the city they live in. Black applicants may be incorrectly told that jobs advertised were filled already. One study even documented that employer’s name-code blacks to exclude them from hiring. Those with Islamic or Afro-centric sounding names are red penciled from their interview list.
A decade ago, in a seven-month comprehensive university study of the hiring practices of hundreds of Chicago area employers, many top company officials when interviewed said they would not hire blacks. When asked to assess the work ethic of white, black and Latino employees by race, nearly 40 percent of the employer’s ranked blacks dead last.
The employers routinely described blacks as being “unskilled,” “uneducated,” “illiterate,” “dishonest,” “lacking initiative,” “involved with gangs and drugs” or “unstable,” of having “no family values” and being “poor role models.” The consensus among these employers was that blacks brought their alleged pathologies to the work place, and were to be avoided at all costs. Researchers found that black business owners shared many of the same negative attitudes. The Chicago study has been replicated in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia and other major cities with a large number of unemployed work eligible black males and surveys of professional groups.
With the health care reform battle out of the way, Obama now should target Great Depression joblessness among young blacks. It’s a target well worth aiming at.