Black Unemployment in the U.S.: So Bad the UN is Investigating

The level of black unemployment in the U.S. is so bad that the United Nations is launching an investigation.  And, indeed the figures on unemployment by race are grim for blacks, especially black men.  The latest unemployment figures show a stark racial disparity. For black men, the unemployment rate was 20.2%, compared to 9.6% unemployment for white men.  (Of course, these numbers are low given that “discouraged workers,” those who are no longer looking for employment, are not included, nor are those who are incarcerated.)   The outrageously high unemployment among black Americans means the United States has failed to live up to commitments it made under United Nations human rights agreements, a coalition of advocacy groups charges (pdf), according to a recent report by City Limits.

In a filing to the UN’s Human Rights Council last week, a group that includes New York’s Urban Justice Center and National Employment Law Project, casts “the over-representation of women and racial and ethnic minorities in unemployment, underemployment, and poverty” as a human rights issue and calls on Washington “to take specific steps to create employment opportunities for these groups.”  Thus far, the U.S. permanent mission to the U.N. has not commented.

These stark numbers unemployment figures reflect an egregious reality of ongoing discrimination and historical structural inequality in the U.S. that has placed an especially harsh burden on the shoulders of black men, according to a report from the Center for American Progress called “Weathering the Storm” (pdf):

Black men’s ability to access high-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector played a significant role in building the black middle class after World War II. Yet those jobs have steadily declined in the past several decades. A study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated that the share of African Americans in manufacturing jobs fell from 23.9 percent in 1979 to 9.8 percent in 2007. Blacks were actually 15 percent less likely than other groups in 2007 to have a job in manufacturing. These jobs have also been among the first cut in this recession, accelerating the decline of available positions with decent pay for black men.

Black men have also been disproportionately affected by the instability in the automotive industry. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that African Americans have above average employment and earn much higher wages in auto industry jobs than in other industries. If one or more domestic automakers were to file for bankruptcy, more than 3 million jobs could be lost within the next year, a result that would be especially devastating for African Americans.

Black workers have not only suffered from a severe decline in decent employment opportunities, but they have also faced decreasing rates of unionization related to the shrinking manufacturing industry. Unionized African-American workers on average earn higher wages than nonunion black workers with similar characteristics. From 2004 to 2007, the median unionized black worker earned about $17.51 per hour, compared to $12.57 per hour for the median nonunion black worker. Unionized black workers were also more likely to have health insurance and pension plans than nonunion black workers.

The employment rates of African-American men remained stagnant even during the economic booms in the 1980s and 1990s. The group’s continued high unemployment rates and inability to achieve prior employment peaks even after many years of a strong economy are influenced by multiple factors, including high rates of incarceration, limited education, child support arrearages, and discrimination.

Ongoing discrimination is a factor as well.  As Joe Feagin and Melvin Sykes note in their book, Living with Racism (1993), even highly educated, middle class blacks face routine, persistent discrimination in employment and a host of other arenas of everyday life.   Devah Pager’s research of nearly 1,500 employers in New York City found that black applicants without criminal records are no more likely to get a job than white applicants just out of prison. The statistics from the study also suggested that employer discrimination against people of color and ex-offenders has significantly undermined the job opportunities for young black men with little education and training. And, more recently, Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow (2010), details the system of mass incarceration that contributes to keeping black men trapped in a subordinate status.

This systemic oppression gets multiplied when there is any sort of downturn in the economy and the current recession has hit black men particularly hard, with unemployment rates expected to rise even higher.

The fact is that the population of out of work black men is not monolithic. It includes young guys and middle-aged men, ex-convicts and aspiring entrepreneurs, the college educated and those who didn’t finish high school.  Yet, the fact remains that there is a systemic difference in unemployment rates that’s so egregious, so pervasive, so persistent over decades in the U.S., that it’s now an issue worthy of examination as a violation of international human rights by the United Nations.

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