Since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007, everyone from job seekers and employers to economists and politicians have kept their eyes glued to the monthly jobs reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And over the past seven years, the number of unemployed Americans has spiked and then slowly decreased over time.
But what does this mean for African Americans?
The national unemployment rate has dropped to 6.1 percent, a slight decrease from July’s 6.2 percent, according to the August employment report. The fact that the unemployment rate has been steadily falling is important news, especially considering the abysmal national unemployment rates the country has seen in the past 7 years.
The significance of the unemployment rate becomes even more interesting when we zoom in on these numbers, keeping race and ethnicity in mind. While the overall average unemployment rate is just over 6 percent, the percentage of unemployed Americans varies wildly by race and ethnicity. For example, the unemployment rate for Asians is by far the lowest, at 4.5 percent. Whites are not too far behind, with an unemployment rate of 5.3 percent, while Latinos had a 7.5 percent unemployment rate. African Americans, however, reported a whopping 11.4 percent unemployment rate—numbers significantly higher than any ethnic group surveyed.
The BLS report also shows that 10.6 percent of adult Black women age 20 or older are unemployed, a percentage unchanged from a year ago, while the unemployment rate for adult Black men declined to 10.8 percent from 13.4 percent a year ago.
Looking at the trends in the recent monthly BLS reports is important, but it only gives part of the picture. Certainly, African Americans have not only been hit particularly hard by this recession, but as a group have routinely had higher rates of unemployment and underemployment in comparison to other ethnic groups in the United States for decades. Indeed, the unemployment rate has been consistently higher for Blacks than for whites for over the past forty years—ever since these statistics have accounted for race.
And Blacks are not just facing serious unemployment, but also rampant underemployment, at astronomical figure of almost 25 percent. Underemployment, the condition of being employed at less than full-time or regular jobs or being employed at jobs inadequate with respect to one’s training or economic needs, is a chronic concern in Black communities all across the nation.
These employment issues cut across class lines, as statistics show that African American college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed in comparison to other graduates. Indeed, studies have shown that White men with recent criminal records are more likely to receive calls back after job interviews than Black men with no criminal history. That’s right, a White male felon is a more attractive employee than a Black man with no record. Race, rather than education, class, and other socioeconomic factors, seem to consistently carry the most weight in determining success in getting a job.
Cornell Williams Brooks, the president and CEO of the NAACP, has noted, “The trend of a national decrease in unemployment is encouraging; but we cannot lose sight of the persistently high levels of black unemployment and underemployment. With African American workers being disproportionately concentrated in occupations that hire part-time workers while also paying low wages, we are trapping them along with other vulnerable economic populations in perpetual financial distress and preventing them from moving into the middle class. Stronger and better quality job creation, particularly in these communities, is essential before our country can be on a sustainable path to economic recovery.”
The circumstances surrounding Black unemployment and underemployment point to the persistent systemic inequalities and racism that continue to affect African American job seekers at an alarmingly disproportionate rate. This is not an issue of Blacks being lazy, unmotivated, undereducated, or unqualified. At every turn African Americans are faced with a system set up to fail them and them blame them for a condition that they did not cause.
Economic recovery for African Americans is essential to the recovery of the nation as a whole. And when this country becomes serious about addressing the systemic discrimination and inequities that plague Black communities and other marginalized groups, then and only then will something like a full economic recovery become more than a fantasy.