As the current downtown slows down, unemployment continues to rise, causing angst among American families and in political circles. Alan Greenspan recently expressed his expectation that the unemployment rate would soon exceed 10%. Figures released last week revealed that it has already reached 9.8%, the highest rate in 26 years. An even more disturbing trend however is the unemployment rate for black men. Although the national black unemployment rate stands at 15.4% as of September, these figures do not tell the full story.
This time last year, Buffalo, in New York State, had a 51.4% unemployment rate for black males, the largest nationally. Milwaukee was a close second, at 51.1 percent, followed by Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago. Not much has changed. According to a Wall Street Journal review from last week, the national unemployment rate for black male teens jumped from 32.9% in July to a ‘catastrophic’ 50.4% in September.
Algernon Austin, Director of Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute, has argued against the oft-cited reasons for the racial disparities citing research which shows that there was a large gap in employment levels even when blacks and whites had the same levels of education. However, one study revealed that even felony convictions did not level out the playing field, with white men who had felony convictions receiving call backs and job offers more often than black males without any convictions.
Education is often given as the answer to unemployment for black males, but in fact, not only do black males with college degrees also suffer higher unemployment rates, but many remain underemployed in unskilled jobs.
I set out to interview some college-educated black men, to put a face to these numbers. I spoke to 32 year old Keith Richardson, who was working a clerical “temp” job for $10 an hour. I also spoke to Derron Cook, 31, who has a graduate degree, Nathan Scott, 37, and Kevin who chose not to give his full name, an unemployed journalist who had worked for national newspapers including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Atlanta Journal Constitution, and has also self-published two books. All of these men, except Keith, were unemployed and reported having worked temp jobs at one time or another, roles that always started off with the promise that they would become permanent but were ultimately always terminated. All of these men were very well spoken, well presented and well dressed, thus dispensing with some of the stereotypes about black males which are often used to explain higher unemployment rates.
These shocking numbers call for a far reaching response, on a par with the President’s response to the beating death of Chicago teen Derrion Albert whereby he ordered two of his cabinet secretaries to go to Chicago and investigate. At a time when affirmative action is under attack by the political right, these numbers show that affirmative action needs not only to continue, but to be expanded and/or overhauled.
While affirmative action may have already addressed the need to increase numbers, what is harder to legislate however, is whether blacks are being hired in desirable positions or if they are being hired for positions below their qualifications.
While it is undeniable that negative stereotypes about black men account for some of these high numbers, I still think that there is much that black men can do to help themselves. Government cannot do it all, and legislation will always present loopholes and difficulties related to enforcement.
I think black families will have to take a practical approach to this problem and help guide young black men to pursue academic courses in the higher need science disciplines. The government can and must take a lead in providing incentives for training in these areas of high need.