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Racial jobs crisis

from David Ruccio

The United States is in the midst of a jobs crisis, with an official jobless rate over 9 percent and almost 14 million people unemployed. And it faces a racial jobs crisis, since the unemployment rate for blacks (16.2 percent) is more than twice that of whites (8 percent).

The rate for black men is even higher: 17.5 percent (which is up .5 percent from a year ago).

The question is, what explains the racial jobs crisis? According to Andy Kroll, the phenomenon of last-hired, first-fired explains may explain “the soaring numbers of unemployed African Americans, but not the yawning chasm between the black and white employment rates.”

It’s a problem that spans generations, goes remarkably unnoticed, and condemns millions of black Americans to a life of scraping by. That unerring, unchanging gap between white and black employment figures goes back at least 60 years. It should be a scandal, but whether on Capitol Hill or in the media it gets remarkably little attention. Ever.

The unemployment lines run through history like a pair of train tracks. Since the 1940s, the jobless rate for blacks in America has held remarkably, if grimly, steady at twice the rate for whites. The question of why has vexed and divided economists, historians, and sociologists for nearly as long.

Here’s what the gap looks like from 1950 to 2005:


Kroll’s view is that the gap persists because of two major factors: high incarceration rates for black men and continuing racial discrimination. The findings of recent experimentsby sociologist Devah Pager and others

proved a powerful antidote to the growing notion, mostly in conservative circles, that discrimination was an illusion and racism long eradicated. In The Content of Our Character (1991), Shelby Steele argued that racial discrimination no longer held black men or women back from the jobs they wanted; the problem was in their heads. Dinesh D’Souza, a first-generation immigrant of Indian descent, published The End of Racism in 1995, similarly claiming racial discrimination had little to do with the plight of black America.

Not so, insist Pager, Darity, Harvard’s Bruce Western, and other academics using real data with an unavoidable message: racism is alive and well. It leads to endemic, deeply embedded patterns of discrimination whose harmful impact has barely changed in 60 years. And it cannot be ignored. As the old African-American adage puts it, “You’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far as a black person in white America.”

Notwithstanding Obama’s election, racism persists in America. And we can’t say there’s a real economic recovery until the jobs crisis—the overall jobs crisis and the racial jobs crisis—are solved.

  1. Jeff Z.
    July 8, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    The data provide clues to look at other aspects of American society. Since the gap between white and black unemployment persists, we need to look at how other things interact with the job market. What about education and drop-out rates? Does the education system in the U.S. serve its people well? What is it designed to do? Is there a class / race divide here that contributes to the gap discussed above?

    Suppose we take a basic observation that most economists accept as true: People respond to incentives. If there is a large segment of the black population that does not finish high school, this contributes to both high incarceration rates and higher unemployment rates. Racism enters when black kids observe that even if they do go to college, they are shunted of into dead end jobs for which college is unnecessary (at least for whites!), or are passed over for promotions and so forth. The pattern reinforces itself, as mostly white bosses use the pattern of drop outs to explain that black’s lack the necessary skills, thus justifying and reinforcing the pattern in an ever deepening cycle.

    If this is true, and people respond to incentives, what incentive is there for blacks to stay in school? This seems like pretty strong evidence of racism in the job market AND within the education system. Suffice it to say that this aspect of the problem is only rarely discussed outside of wonkish circles. It also puts a new light on the assault on PUBLIC education in the U.S. It begs us to ask what kind of a society we would want to have, when we take an honest look at the society we DO have. I have been thinking along these lines since I finished my dissertation, but the current issue of Monthly Review really does highlight some truly important aspects, in a lot more depth, than I have gone into here. (http://monthlyreview.org/)

    I also applaud David for posting evidence, and discussing other evidence, in light of “Unpicking the anti-neo-classical “hairball”, so that what we are for is not defined by what we are against,” yesterday’s excellent post by Bruce Edmonds.

  2. July 8, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    Looking at the graph, there is simply a direct multiplication factor at work, as economic conditions change.
    Living in the “land of the free” is a myth for non-whites.

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