Economic Snapshot | Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy (PREE)

For African Americans, 50 years of high unemployment

In 2011, the African American unemployment rate averaged 15.8 percent – twice the white average of 7.9 percent. This disparity has persisted for the last half-century. In fact, the black unemployment rate has consistently been roughly twice the white rate. Data from the Census Bureau indicates this 2-to-1 relationship dates back to at least 1960 (Fairlie and Sundstrom 1999). (Note: The figure below uses Bureau of Labor Statistics data on African American unemployment going back to Jan. 1972.)

While whites have experienced periods of high unemployment during the 1970s, early 1980s, and in the past few years, their highest rates are in the range of the lowest unemployment rates for African Americans in the last 50 years. Thus, for African Americans, the last 50 years have been marked by extremely high unemployment occasionally interrupted by periods of merely high unemployment. At no point can we say that blacks have experienced a low unemployment rate.

African Americans will not be able to conquer poverty or the many problems that stem from poverty while experiencing high unemployment.


Fairlie, Robert W., and William A. Sundstrom. 1999. “The emergence, persistence, and recent widening of the racial unemployment gap.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, vol. 52, no. 2, pp. 252–70.