Are blacks missing out on jobs in their own backyard?
On Friday morning, the U.S. Labor Department released the nation’s unemployment numbers for June. With a jobless rate of 9.2 percent — much higher when the underemployed and those who have stopped looking for job are included — there is every indication that the nation has a long road to economic recovery. And economic growth for the next few years is forecasted at lower than 3 percent, the amount needed to keep unemployment at a constant level. The prospect of a double-dip recession still looms over America’s uncertain economic landscape.
An often overlooked aspect of the U.S. jobs outlook is black unemployment. An often overlooked aspect of the U.S. jobs outlook is black unemployment. Black joblessness officially stands at 16.2 percent, including 17 percent for black men, 13.8 percent for black women, and 39.9 percent for black teens.
In New York City, in recent years, 34 percent for African-American men between 19 and 24 don’t have a job. And in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the jobless rate for black men is also 34 percent. The reality is that black unemployment, typically double that of whites over the years, has now reached Depression-era levels.
A number of reasons have been cited to explain these disparities. For example, outsourcing and globalization have negatively affected predominantly black cities. Urban public schools have ill-equipped and poorly prepared people of color for the job market, as black dropout rates are higher and college entry rates are lower. But even among college graduates, unemployment for blacks is significantly higher than that of their white counterparts.
Meanwhile, job training programs are lacking in black communities. And ex-felons, of which blacks and Latinos are overrepresented, are precluded from certain jobs due to their prison record, as sectors that traditionally employed people with a record are slammed by the tough economy.
There are also structural explanations for the higher black unemployment rate, such as the open hiring discrimination that some employers practice against the unemployed, and some employers’ refusal to hire applicants with black sounding names. Typically, black workers are the last hired and first fired. Racial stereotypes exist, with employers in one Chicago-area study describing blacks as “unskilled,” “uneducated,” “illiterate,” “dishonest,” “lacked initiative,” “unmotivated,” “involved with gangs and drugs,” “did not understand work,” “unstable,” “lacked charm,” “had no family values,” and were “poor role models.”
According to a Gallup poll, 27 percent of blacks said they have experienced workplace discrimination. And a Drum Major Institute study found that white ex-convicts are as likely to be hired as blacks with no criminal record. In addition, the labor movement is not as powerful as in past years, and employers have the upper hand.
Moreover, the slashing of government jobs — exacerbated by the end of President Obama’s federal stimulus program — has hurt blacks the hardest because they are more likely to work in government. Nearly 21 percent of African-American adults work in the public sector, as opposed to 17 percent of whites and 15 percent of Latinos. In the film Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend said there is always work at the post office, but that is not necessarily the case today.
And many good jobs are in the distant suburbs, out of the reach of urban-dwelling blacks. Nonetheless, even when jobs are for the taking in their own backyards, African-American workers are finding themselves left out of employment opportunities, particularly those jobs that do not require a college degree.
A most poignant example came to light in Washington, D.C. in March, when demonstrators protested a $300 million reconstruction project, the largest transportation project in the district’s history, because contractors hired few D.C. residents for the project. Participants in the protest held signs reading, “DC Jobs for DC Residents,” “I Want to Work” and “Jobs for Justice.”
The project will replace Washington’s 11th Street Bridge, a twin bridge connecting the mostly black and poor Anacostia section — which has suffered from 30 percent unemployment — to the rest of Washington.
“Then they tell us that they can’t find qualified workers, or the workers are on drugs,” according to a Donald M. Temple, a lawyer who spoke for the demonstrators. “It’s atrocious,” he added, “and people are getting fed up with it…. These are predominantly poor, African-American workers… These people are being reduced to second-class citizenship, and it’s unacceptable.”
Similarly, President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus program has come under fire not only because it was insufficient in size to bring about economic recovery, but because black- and Latino-owned businesses received a disproportionately small number of stimulus contracts.
With the effort to begin work on “shovel-ready” stimulus projects immediately, states have relied on larger, predominantly white contractors who, in turn, have used their preferred subcontractors. Smaller minority-owned firms may lack the resources and staff, and may be unable to post construction bonds, which is a guarantee that a project will be completed. The quandary reflects a longstanding challenge faced by minority-owned businesses in landing government contracts. Further, according to black-owned contractors, a “good old boy” network has existed to ensure that white-male-owned contractors, well connected and extensively networked, continue to secure the highly coveted contracts. And when black-owned businesses are denied these opportunities — aggressively shut out of the market or removed from existing contracts — they cannot hire people and help uplift the community. As a result, the black community suffers and its problems of unemployment and poverty persist. That has been the case for years in cities such as Philadelphia.
For example, Holley Enterprises, a black-owned construction company, claims that James J. Anderson Construction unfairly terminated their contract as subcontractor on a subway repair project. According to Holley, Anderson brought on the black-owned firm to meet minority participation requirements for the project, and unfairly terminated Holley two months later.
Minority businesses suggest that the pervasiveness of discrimination demonstrates the continued need for affirmative action to give minority businesses a fair chance and bring them into the economic mainstream.
In the casino industry, which has a better than average track record of hiring blacks and other disadvantaged groups, almost half of the typically low-skilled service workers are minorities, and over half are women. Nevertheless, some casinos are unable to commit to diversity in their hiring practices. An Indiana casino operator drew the ire of state regulators for failing to meet statutory goals in contracting at least 10 percent minority-owned vendors and 5 percent women-owned businesses.
According to a member of the Indiana Gaming Commission, imposing fines on companies that do not comply does not solve the problem. Casino operators maintain that they face a challenge in meeting diversity targets in parts of the state with a low minority population.
Considering the gravity of this protracted jobs crisis, lingering racial discrimination and the inability of the free market to correct itself, voices in the black community are demanding government action to create jobs. A government role is not mutually exclusive of measures the black community can pursue to reduce unemployment, including increasing their commitment to education, entrepreneurship and money management.
Some advocates have urged for a second stimulus from Obama, one that targets low-income communities and communities of color. And they suggest the president and Congress put together an aggressive plan to put people back to work. For example, the National Urban League promotes a 12-point plan to combat unemployment, which includes public-private collaboration on jobs, green empowerment zones in the inner cities, and Congress restoring the summer jobs program.
“The National Urban League calls on Washington to declare war on unemployment, and urban America is the battlefront,” said Marc Morial, National Urban League President and CEO. “With every downturn in the economy, urban and minority communities fall farther and farther behind. The State of Black America reflects the urgency for intervention and incentives targeted at the communities that are deeply affected,” he added. “As urban communities go, so goes America, and unless those communities have access to jobs and are fully prepared to excel and innovate in those jobs, the nation’s economic recovery is meaningless.”
And on Thursday the Congressional Black Caucus criticized the president for failing to address African-American joblessness, as they announced a multi-state jobs tour. Obama’s approach at a universal job creation plan has failed to address the intractable, disproportionate suffering experienced by black Americans, as the CBC suggests.
“Can you imagine a situation where any other group of workers, if 34 percent of white women were out there looking for work and couldn’t find it?” asked Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri), CBC chairman. “You would see congressional hearings and community gatherings. There would be rallies and protest marches. There is no way that this would be allowed to stand.”
For African-Americans — the most loyal of Obama’s base, and voters he will surely need to secure his reelection — the devastating jobs crisis is serious business. Just as the UN has considered investigating black unemployment as a human rights issue, with it has emerged as a civil rights issue. The Great Recession has decimated black wealth and erased black economic gains mad since the Civil Rights era. During the recession, median black net worth fell 83 percent, and many in the black middle class slipped into poverty as they lost their jobs, homes and livelihoods.
Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University, said that concerns about offending or politically damaging the President were insufficient to remain silent on black unemployment. “This is an American crisis that demands an American response at the highest echelons of our government,” said Dyson. “And that does include the White House.”