Commentary | Jobs and Unemployment

Black Americans face an especially tough job market

As the entire country struggles with the highest unemployment rate in a generation, black Americans are especially hard pressed to find jobs. Overall unemployment in May reached 9.4%, but within that number there were some stark differences by race. White unemployment in May stood at 8.6%, while the black unemployment rate was a staggering 14.9%.

And it is not only during a recession that blacks struggle to find work. During a June 19 panel hosted by the Center for American Progress to discuss this persistent problem, Algernon Austin — EPI’s director of Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy — noted that black male unemployment was at “recessionary” levels even back when the overall economy had been strong. In 2006, for example, unemployment was 3.9% among white men and 9.7% among black men. Even the historically deep recession the country now faces has not produced overall unemployment levels equal to what black men have faced for years.

In his presentation, Discrimination and Black Male Unemployment, Austin explained why many of the oft-cited reasons for this disparity are not accurate. His research shows that there was a large gap in employment levels even when blacks and whites had the same levels of education. Among men who did not have a high school diploma, unemployment levels in 2006 were 8.5% for whites but 18.8% for blacks. That same year, unemployment was 2.5% for white men with college degrees yet 5.1% for black men with college degrees.

Even having a criminal past does not appear to level the playing field. Austin cited research showing that employers were far more forgiving of white men with criminal records and called them back at a much higher rate than black men with similar records. One study conducted in New York City found that white felons received call backs or job offers more often than blacks with no criminal records.

A body of research on the topic of race and employment has reached similar conclusions, suggesting that, although few employers today would admit to hiring on the basis of race, a subtler sort of racism persists.

“The nation has clearly made significant progress on the path toward racial equality. But it is very important to realize that we still have a long way to go,” said Austin. He noted that employment disparities between blacks and whites have changed little since they were first outlined in the 1968 Kerner Commission report on civil disorders.

“We won’t be able to solve these problems until we collectively admit that we have a problem,” said Austin who called for more aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination laws as well as the use of stimulus funds to create jobs specifically targeted to reach communities that have had consistently high rates of unemployment.

“Unfortunately, there are many black communities across the nation that would qualify,” said Austin.

See related work on Jobs | Race and Ethnicity | Wages, Incomes, and Wealth | Inequality and Poverty

See more work by Andrea Orr