As bad as today’s unemployment news is for the nation, for the African-American community it’s much worse. African Americans as a group continue to bear a disproportionate share of the damage done to the economy by misguided conservative policies. It consequently needs a much greater focus from the Obama administration, Congress—and us.
The unemployment rate is now 8.5 percent nationally, but among African Americans it is at 13.3 percent. The percentage in March went down a tenth of a percentage point from February, but only because the size of the African-American labor force shrank by 161,000 people—a likely sign that a lot of African American people are at least for now giving up looking for work. While the percentage was down slightly, the reality is that 124,000 fewer African Americans were employed in March than they were in February.
The impact is particularly severe among African-American men: a 15.4 percent unemployment rate, roughly 50 percent higher than the unemployment rate among African-American women. Put another way, that is almost one in six African-American men out of work.
The disgrace of the Reagan-Bush era is that despite the emergence of a highly visible black middle class and the shattering of some racial barriers, African Americans as a group were casualties of conservative economic policies and the misguided notion that race is no longer a significant determinant of economic well-being.
An Economic Policy Institute paper last year found that African-American median family income declined by $404, or 1 percent, between 2000 and 2007, the first decline in black median family income in a business cycle of this length since World War II. During the same period, the African-American unemployment rate increased by 0.7 percentage points, and there was a 2.4 percentage-point decline in the employment rate.
More recently, William Spriggs, chairman of the economics department at Howard University, noted how poorly the African-American community fared under Reagan administration policies in a chapter in the National Urban League’s State of Black America 2009 report:
For example, in 1980, median black family income was $30,439. When Reagan left office in 1989, it had increased to $32,628, only to fall back to $30,439 by the end of the Reagan-Bush Administration in 1993. That is a stunning figure when compared to the 1975 median income of $30,762 for black families, and the progress that was made over the previous 12 years – in 1967 the median family income of blacks was $26,461. It is even more astonishing given that only 31 percent African Americans over 25 were high school graduates in 1970, and by 1990 the figure had climbed to 63.1 percent. Thus, while the educational attainment of African Americans doubled, African-American incomes remained unchanged.
Algernon Austin, the author of the EPI study, made a similar point in an essay last year about how differences in educational attainment—the stock conservative answer for why African Americans are more likely to be unemployed than whites—doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
At every education level, whites are more likely to be employed than blacks. White male college graduates had a 4 percentage-point employment rate advantage over their black male peers. The white male advantage over black males for high school dropouts was a whopping 15 percentage points wide.
Surprisingly, the largest employment rate gap is among the least educated men. This finding is the opposite of what many people believe. Many people think that blacks are not finding work mainly because they are not receiving the necessary education for professional and high-tech jobs. But the larger problem is that, for some reason, black male high school dropouts can’t get the jobs that white male high school dropouts get.
A projection in the State of Black America report by William M. Rodgers, a professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, is particularly frightening: a rise in the black male unemployment rate to 18 percent between now and 2012. As bad as that sounds, he says that without the $750 billion stimulus package signed into law by President Obama—the one that was unanimously opposed by congressional Republicans and denounced by conservatives as a plan that will bankrupt the nation—the black male unemployment rate would have been 23 percent.
Given that the conservative policy alternative—tax cuts, disinvestment in urban areas and the outsourcing of jobs that had served as a gateway for African Americans into the middle class—has already been tried twice and failed, did the right really want the economic devastation and social unrest caused by nearly one in four African-American men unemployed on its hands?
Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for the answer. There is still a test coming up for Congress, however. The successful passage of the essential foundation of the Obama administration’s budget this week, pending the outcome of a House-Senate conference, gives Congress the opportunity to make some critical policy decisions. In education, labor, social services, energy, transportation and urban development, Congress and the Obama administration will have opportunities to put in place programs specifically designed to close the employment race gap between African Americans, especially men, and the rest of society.
Obama can lead in this area by explicitly addressing the plight of black men and challenging the nation—not just elected officials in Washington but grassroots organizations, think tanks and educational institutions—to make a central goal of economic recovery ending the decades-long pattern of black men being almost twice as likely to be unemployed as white men. That gap should be reduced to zero well before 2016.
That would tell the rest of the world that we have entered a new racial era.