Is black unemployment a human rights issue?

OPINION - If the United Nations is willing to elevate black unemployment as an egregious human rights concern, I say it's about time...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The United Nations may consider investigating whether the persistently high unemployment rate among African-Americans is a violation of human rights. A group of employment advocates, including the National Employment Law Project and the New York Urban Justice Center, contend that the over-representation of African-Americans among those who are unemployed and living in poverty is a human rights violation. Indeed, African-American unemployment is currently at 16.5 percent, nearly twice the national average of 9.7 percent. For African-American males age 20 and over, the unemployment rate is 19 percent, nearly twice the national average. For African-American women, the rate is twice that of their white counterparts, and among African-American teenagers, the unemployment rate looms at 41 percent.

The visible successes of a relative few African-Americans can mask the widespread structural inequality facing many of our communities. Research by Algernon Austin at the Economic Policy Institute has demonstrated the consistently high rates of under- and unemployment among African-Americans as evidence of a “permanent recession.” This is true, he argues, when the economy is strong. So, when the rest of the nation is experiencing a recession, what are African-Americans experiencing? That’s right, a depression.

If the recession/depression could be explained by skill differentials or training deficiencies, then perhaps raising it as a human rights issue would be unwarranted. Maybe, some argue, it’s really about our failed ability to adequately prepare these men and women for participation in the labor force. That may be true for some, particularly those who are rebuilding an employable skill set after a lengthy absence from the workforce; but it certainly doesn’t explain the fact that African-American unemployment rates, particularly for men, are consistently double—and in cities like Milwaukee and Detroit, over five times—the national unemployment rate, even without factoring in those who are not working because they are “discouraged” or incarcerated.

Most African-Americans recognize that bias looms in the workplace, a reality that leads to some of our fiercest contests about fairness and equity. According to a Gallup poll, 27 percent of African-Americans report that they have experienced workplace discrimination—a trend far too high to be considered coincidental. Studies have found that when equally qualified candidates apply for a job—or even when the African-American applicant is slightly more qualified than his/her white counterpart, the African-American candidate is more likely to be overlooked; and when the African-American candidate is selected, he/she is more likely to be offered less money than his/her white counterpart to perform the same job. Additionally, while educational attainment is critical to employment and personal achievement, a degree has not protected African-Americans from being excluded from the workplace. In fact, in our current economic climate, the unemployment rate for African Americans with a college degree is nearly twice that of their white counterparts— 8.4 percent compared with 4.4 percent.

Employment processes should be transparent and decisions made along the hiring continuum should be informed by both the legal obligations of an employer to ensure fairness and the professional integrity of that employer to select the best qualified candidate. Individuals with ethnically identifiable names should not have to mask their identity—by shortening or changing their names to sound more European—to get a chance to show their qualifications. Too often, implicit and institutional biases render African-Americans unemployed and wondering if grandma’s warning that we’d have to “work twice as hard to go half as far” is still true nearly 50 years after the end of Jim Crow segregation.

Unemployment by itself may not be a human rights issue; however, the systematic exclusion of a particular group because of their race or ethnicity is a human and civil rights violation. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all persons have a right to live free of discrimination and U.S. civil rights laws are designed to protect individuals and groups that have faced historical discrimination against this violation of personal freedoms. But laws, without enforcement, are meaningless.

Many of us have been in this fight for equal access to employment for a long time—and we’ll stay in the fight. But a little international pressure to do what’s right never hurts. So, if the United Nations is willing to elevate black unemployment as an egregious human rights concern, I say it’s about time.