Black leaders speak out on education and persistent African-American unemployment

theGRIO REPORT - African-Americans could face a greater jobs crisis in coming years...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Even though unemployment nationwide fell to 8.5 percent in December, for blacks joblessness rose “from 15.5 to 15.8 percent,” according to the Associated Press.

This rise appears to be alarming, but T. Willard Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami, does not think people should be surprised. “It’s not shocking,” he told theGrio when asked how black unemployment could increase while others enjoy the economic expansion.

Fair explained this occurrence as a direct result of the professionals returning to work who made up most of the newly unemployed during the recession. According to Fair, they are the first in line for new jobs.

“A strange thing happened now that they are going back to work,” Fair elaborated. “Many who are responding to the job listings that have brought down unemployment this last quarter are highly qualified people who are now doing jobs that black people otherwise would be doing.”

A USA Today story confirms that 44 percent of the new jobs created “were concentrated in a handful of low-paying industries” — in other words unskilled labor positions typically held by African-Americans.

This phenomenon is compounding the underlying social problems that have made double-digit African-American unemployment the norm. In an report, Charles Gallagher of La Salle University in Philadelphia stated: “Since the 1920s the two-to-one ratio has defined black-to-white unemployment in the U.S.” — meaning that, in good times and in bad, black unemployment tends to be twice the national rate.

If higher black unemployment remains endemic regardless of the health of the economy, and circumstances are making even highly skilled workers compete for low-wage jobs, African-Americans could face a greater jobs crisis in coming years. To address this issue head on, leaders must look at the deeper causes of African-American joblessness — focusing on antecedents other than institutional racism.

Fair calls political initiatives focusing on combating racism instead of promoting blacks’ employment preparedness, “unfair to racism.”

“For us to focus on the last vestiges of racism in the work world, really makes no sense,” Fair said. “And you really can’t talk about racism in the work world, when our applicants really don’t match the level of other applicants applying for jobs.”

Statistics show that too many blacks are entering the job market without the most basic of qualifications — a high school diploma. In a recent article, theGrio analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics data and found that the unemployment rate was 13.8 percent in December for those without a high school diploma. For high school graduates, the level was a much lower 8.7 percent. In this light, the fact that only 57 percent of black students graduated from high school in 2008 underscores the stark connection between education and employment.

Yet, many organizations seeking to address black unemployment fail to make that connection. From Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s “Poverty Tour,” to the highly publicized job fairs sponsored by the Congressional Black Causus, many of our most vocal captains in the war against black unemployment have not focused on the obvious front of improving blacks’ education.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, believes that addressing education first is critical to ending the black joblessness crisis. The jobs and training being sought by most black leaders won’t increase opportunities for an uneducated group.“If only six in ten African-American kids are graduating from high school, there is a direct correlation between these rates and why black unemployment is so high,” Taylor told theGrio. Despite this, most leaders avoid addressing ineffective public schools.

“It’s a very complicated issue,” Taylor theorized. “The easier answer is, let’s talk about racism and how it affects the unemployment rate, let’s talk about classism — because those are easier questions to ask and resolve,” the head of the HBCU scholarship organization said.

“We can pass another piece of legislation. But everything tells us that’s not enough,” Taylor continued. “We now have decades of civil rights laws on the books, we have a very active Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), we have a strong civil rights community, but we still have persistently low high school graduation rates.”

Taylor believes that if educators really want to successfully address the black education gap, “We must put qualified African-American teachers back in the classroom, black males in particular.”

But Fair believes activists should be even more concerned over the fact that “a high school diploma has little or no value in the real world” — which sets up future black job seekers for even greater failures as our economy continues to shift.

“The highest paying jobs in science, technology, energy and math are going to require a college degree or more,” Fair lamented. Yet, “in every major area where tests are used to measure proficiency, we are at the bottom of the rung.”

Are black leaders doing enough to tackle these ongoing employment pitfalls, which have poor high school graduation rates at their root?

“They are not doing anything,” Fair alleged. “Leaders are not focused enough on the changing skills needed and who this shift is impacting the most.”

“They are afraid to put a face on it because the president of the United States happens to be black, and that’s ridiculous,” Fair said. “You can’t expect anyone to put a face on it but us.”

Fair believes they are reluctant to put a black face to unemployment, because they don’t want President Obama to be associated with the problem. To them, “skin is more important than sin,” the seasoned political leader believes.

By avoiding the underlying education issue, activists are failing to help our communities understand how critical education is to black America’s future.

If leaders would work together to promote education, they could close the achievement gap by demanding policies that could reduce the high school drop out rate.These policies include advocating for testing that addresses true learning proficiency over graduating incompetent students for the sake of improving numbers.

But, the “most important thing is to restore value to education,” Fair said. “There has to be a revolution.”

“The community at large must begin to demand that education becomes the primary goal of all of the adults in presiding communities,” Fair insisted. “Until the adults decide that education is important, the children will not believe that it makes any sense to become educated.”

“It’s not about the children,” Fair concluded. “It’s about the values and the beliefs of the adults to whom the children belong.”

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb