Black folks often tell their children the more education they obtain, the more power and leverage they will have as they made their way through life. But for years now, that old adage has not been quite as true, as African Americans try to make their way through very tough economic times.
For Black Americans, the jobless rate is nearly double that of their white counterparts. Black Americans have long suffered the highest unemployment rate of any ethnic group in the country, and the economic downturn has only exacerbated a long-standing discrepancy.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate for African Americans was 15.7 percent, compared with 8 percent for whites. Although a recent report shows that the unemployment rate fell to a two-year low of 8.9 percent in February, the Economic Policy Institute — a nonpartisan economic think tank — projects that national unemployment for African Americans will reach a 25-year high this year, with the rates in five states exceeding 20 percent.
Needless to say, Black college graduates have not been spared.
At the end of 2010, African Americans 25 years old and older with a college education had an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, while the rate for white college graduates was 4.2 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Other minority groups, such as Asian college graduates and Hispanics, hover a shade over 5.5 percent, while the rate for Blacks is expected to continue climbing.
Cary Fraser, a professor of labor and industrial relations at Penn State University, said to theRoot.com that he believes that several factors contribute to high unemployment in the Black community.
First, as corporations continue to relocate thousands of jobs to lower-cost markets in more rural areas, many of the opportunities that were once available to Black workers in metropolitan centers are now nonexistent.
“African-American professionals have been largely located in the older cities,” Fraser said. “Except for maybe places like Atlanta, you will find that there is a higher concentration of the Black professional population in the bigger cities.”
He believes that African-American unemployment may end up causing a long-term shift in the country’s demographics as many migrate to where the jobs are.
“In education, for example, there are many schools in the South that are in desperate need of good teachers,” Fraser said. “What we have to ask ourselves is; will we start to see young Black college grads leaving the Northeast to teach in the South?” He cites the migration of the auto industry from American-based manufacturers in Detroit to European and Japanese automakers in Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina as an example of a significant shift in opportunity.
The second factor in high joblessness among Blacks is what Fraser describes as “class-origin distinction.” He says that a large number of Black professionals are first-generation college graduates who don’t have the same kinds of networks as an earlier generation of African Americans. “They’re just not as savvy and as prepared for the workforce when they leave college as the older generation was.”
Fraser believes that colleges and universities share the blame for not adequately preparing students for the job market. “Many of the institutions are failing these kids — and are just taking them in as a way of financing themselves.”
Alvin McCoy, 44, would appear to be an unlikely person to have to fret about the impact of race on his job search, with companies like Merrill Lynch and an M.B.A. from Duke University on his résumé.
But as companies have downsized, he is having a hard time maneuvering the recession.
“You would think it wouldn’t be as difficult as it has been,” McCoy said, “how often were we told to go to school and everything would be OK. I do still believe that ultimately things will turn around, but in times like these you have a tendency to question yourself. But when you see your friends with college degrees working at places like Walmart and Macy’s — you can’t help but be a little shaken. In the long run … you just have to have faith and believe.”
The mere fact that race remains a serious obstacle in the job market for African Americans, even for those with degrees from respected colleges, may seem to some people a jarring contrast to decades of progress by Blacks, culminating in President Barack Obama’s election.
But there is ample evidence that racial inequities remain when it comes to employment. Black joblessness has long far outstripped that of whites. And strikingly, the disparity for the first 10 months of 2009, as the recession dragged on, was even more pronounced for those with college degrees, compared with those without. Education, it seems, does not level the playing field — in fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.
College-educated African American men, especially, have struggled relative to their white counterparts in this downturn, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for Black male college graduates 25 and older has been nearly twice that of white male college graduates — 8.4 percent compared with 4.4 percent.
Various academic studies have confirmed that Black job seekers have a harder time than whites. A study published several years ago in The American Economic Review, titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” found that applicants with Black-sounding names received 50 percent fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names.
A more recent study, published in 2009 in The Journal of Labor Economics found white, Asian and Hispanic managers tended to hire more whites and fewer African Americans than Black managers did.
The New York Times conducted interviews with more than two dozen college-educated Black job seekers around the country, many of them out of work for months — and found that discrimination is rarely overt. Instead, those interviewed told subtler stories, referring to surprised looks and offhand comments, interviews that fell apart almost as soon as they began, and the sudden loss of interest from companies after the initial meeting.
Whether or not each case actually involved bias, the possibility has furnished an additional, agonizing layer of second-guessing for many as their job searches have dragged on.
“It does weigh on you in the search because you’re wondering, how much is race playing a factor in whether I’m even getting a first call, or whether I’m even getting an in-person interview once they hear my voice and they know I’m probably African-American?” Terelle Hairston, 28, a graduate of Yale University, said to The New York Times. “You even worry that the hiring manager may not be as interested in diversity as the H.R. manager or upper management.”
Discrimination in many cases may not even be intentional, some job seekers pointed out, but simply a matter of people gravitating toward similar people, casting about for the right “cultural fit,” a buzzword often heard in corporate circles.
There is also the matter of how many jobs, especially higher-level ones, are never even posted and depend on word-of-mouth and informal networks, in many cases leaving African Americans at a disadvantage. A recent study published in the academic journal Social Problems found that white males receive substantially more job leads for high-level supervisory positions than women and members of minorities.
Many interviewed, however, wrestled with “pulling the race card,” groping between their cynicism and desire to avoid the stigma that Blacks are too quick to claim victimhood. After all, many had gone to good schools and had accomplished résumés. Some had grown up in well-to-do settings, with parents who had raised them never to doubt how high they could climb. Moreover, there is President Obama, perhaps the ultimate embodiment of that belief.
Certainly, they conceded, there are times when their race can be beneficial, particularly with companies that have diversity programs. But many said they sensed that such opportunities had been cut back over the years and even more during the downturn. Others speculated there was now more of a tendency to deem diversity unnecessary after President Obama’s triumph.
In fact, whether President Obama’s election has been good or bad for their job prospects is hotly debated. Several interviewed went so far as to say that they believed there was only so much progress that many in the country could take, and that there was now a backlash against Blacks.
“There is resentment toward his presidency among some because of his race,” said Edward Verner, a Morehouse alumnus from New Jersey who was laid off as a regional sales manager and has been able to find only part-time work. “This has affected well-educated, African-American job seekers.”
It is difficult to overstate the degree race permeates nearly every aspect of their job searches, from how early they show up to interviews, to the kinds of anecdotes they try to come up with.
“You want to be a non-threatening, professional Black guy,” said Alonza Robertson, 43, who has been looking for a job in public relations. “The reality is…you’re still Black. The reality is that when you have to take a job at minimum wage, it does something to you psychologically.”
The last decade, the numbers for African Americans have remained disturbing. Since 2000, African Americans with college degrees have had the highest rate of unemployment among all ethnic groups at their level, even when the market was fairly stable. Yet as the economy worsened in early 2008, the gap widened and the percentage jumped from an average of 4 percent to 7.3 percent between 2008 and 2009.
That’s a 3.3 percent increase in one calendar year, while unemployment for white college graduates remained relatively flat during this span at a steady average of 2.5 percent.
Lurie Daniel-Favors, a New York-based civil rights and consumer-debt attorney, said to theRoot.com that the damaging cycle the African Americans have been going through is nothing new. She cited that even before the current labor crisis, African Americans have always been in a recession when it comes to jobs.
“Blacks have always been the last hired and the first fired,” she said. “Countless studies have shown that when all other things are equal, if two résumés have equal qualifications and the only difference is the ethnicity of the names of the candidates, potential employers will go with the name that sounds the most European — or the least ethnic.”
The New York Times and theRoot.com contributed to this report.
Zack Burgess is the enterprise writer for The Tribune. He is a freelance writer and editor who covers culture, politics and sports. He can be contacted at zackburgess.com.