The unemployment rates for every segment of the African-American population remains persistently high, even while the rest of the nation is starting to get back to work. While the national unemployment rate has dropped to 8.9 percent, for African-Americans, the rate is 15.3 percent. For Black men, the unemployment rate is 16.2 percent; for black women, 13 percent; and among Black teens, 38.4 percent, which is 17 percentage points higher than that of their White counterparts.
Economists predicted in 2008 that African-Americans would lag behind the nation’s overall economic recovery efforts. The legacy of generational, chronic unemployment and persistent under-employment led to Depression-like conditions for African Americans when the nation was in the “Great Recession.” Therefore, it is not surprising that the impact remains severe today. Still, even if we knew it was coming, the sting of a disparate recovery is no less painful.
This is especially true when it is an old demo — segregation — that continues to haunt equal access to opportunity today.
Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that residential segregation for African-Americans is now at its lowest point in a century; however, further analysis shows that in some respects, that statistic was misleading. A block-by-block analysis — which allows for a more detailed examination of where people live than a census tract analysis — reveals continued segregation patterns that affect not only educational outcomes, but employment outcomes as well.
“We’re working two, three jobs but still not earning enough to pay our rent and feed our families,” said Lola Smallwood Cuevas, founder of the UCLA Black Worker Center at a recent public hearing on black employment. “We know in [Los Angeles], the reality is that two to five black workers are either unemployed or working in jobs that are paying less than $12 an hour. Although, we’re 9 percent of the city, we’re 80 percent of Skid Row and when you look at the challenges of LAUSD you see African-Americans struggling to get a quality education.”
Los Angeles is not alone. According to Remapping Debate, 75 percent of African-Americans live in only 16 percent of the Census Block Groups in the U.S., and 30 percent of African-Americans live in a Census Block Group that is 75 percent African-American or more. Nationwide, the economic and social isolation of “African-American blocks” hinders the ability of these communities to get the education and training required to be competitive in our global markets. Additionally, segregation perpetuates underground economies, which lead to violence and victimization among our families, and to criminal conviction histories that further negatively affect employment outcomes.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court found that separate was inherently unequal. Despite recent attempts to re-interpret the intent of that opinion, it remains true that social isolation — segregation — leads to other forms of disparity and inequality. Our successful economic recovery will not be measured by the number of jobs created alone, but rather by the extent to which our policies reflect the spirit and intent of meaningful inclusion necessary to drive a thriving democracy.
We cannot become complacent with what appears to be progress. Creating more public and private sector jobs, along with business development and infrastructure projects are important to our nation’s economic recovery. So too are specific strategies, like the development of local worker centers and Community Benefits Agreements, which continue to push for inclusion and transparency in the labor market. However, until we attack the social structures that are at the root of racial inequalities in the U.S., we threaten to undermine the integrity of our “recovery.”