The Black-White Jobs Gap Is Especially Wide In Red States

Isaiah J. Poole

Black white unemployment gap

It’s a distressingly familiar story: African-American unemployment nationwide remains more than twice that of white people: In the fourth quarter of 2015, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute using Labor Department data, unemployment among African Americans nationally was at 8.3 percent; among white Americans, it was 4.5 percent.

Simply put, much of white America is experiencing what many economists would call full employment. African Americans are experiencing what most economists would call a chronic jobs recession.

But there is a special category of states where unemployment for African Americans is at least two-and-a-half times that of white Americans. What’s notable is that in almost every one of those states where the disparities between African Americans and white people are the widest, Republicans control the governorship and both branches of the state legislature.

Those states (and the ratio of black to white unemployment in the fourth quarter of 2015) are Michigan (3.4 to 1), Ohio (3.0), South Carolina (2.7), Arkansas (2.6), Louisiana (2.6), Alabama (2.5) and Georgia (2.5).

The state that is the exception is Illinois (3.1), which has a Republican governor but a Democratic-controlled legislature.

Notably, the black-white unemployment gap has worsened in nearly all of these states – most notably Michigan, South Carolina and Illinois – since the third quarter of 2011, when EPI did a similar state-by-state look at unemployment by race. The exceptions, narrowing by just two-tenths of a percentage point, are Arkansas and Louisiana.

As the presidential primaries move into states with larger African-American populations, this should raise a direct question: Why haven’t these states, under total Republican control, shown any significant progress in narrowing the racial unemployment gap?

To be fair, there are three Republican-controlled states, out of seven overall, where the black-white unemployment ratio is 2-to-1 or less. But the full list presents an overall more mixed partisan picture. The state with the narrowest black-white gap is New Jersey (1.5), with Republican Gov. Chris Christie but a Democratic-controlled legislature. Next is Tennessee (1.7; Republican governor and legislature), Delaware (1.9; Democratic governor and legislature), Florida (2.0; Republican governor and legislature), New York (2.0; Democratic governor and House, Republican Senate), North Carolina (2.0; Republican governor and legislature) and Virginia (2.0; Democratic governor, Republican legislature).

Of these states, New Jersey showed the most dramatic change from 2011, coming from a black-white unemployment ratio of 2.2 to 1. North Carolina has the distinction of being the only deep-red state that was able to cut the black-white gap by at least a half-percentage point, from 2.5 to 1 in 2011. All of the other states in this group had more modest success except Delaware, where the gap had widened slightly from 1.8 to 1 in 2011.

This is not to suggest that Democratic political control automatically equals better employment prospects for African Americans and a closing of the racial employment gap. (If that were true, the District of Columbia would not show up on the list as having the widest black-white job gap in the country if it were counted as a state.) The unique economic conditions within each state, and the policies elected officials choose in response to those conditions, matter.

But conservatives should acknowledge that they have much of what they’ve asked for: state laboratories that allow them to test their theories about how best to create economic opportunity for groups that have been chronically left behind. Plus, Republicans have successfully applied the brakes to much of the more progressive national economic policies supported by President Obama and congressional Democrats. Yet, aside from North Carolina, there is not a single example of a red state with a significant African-American population in which Republicans can show they have significantly narrowed the gap between black and white unemployment in the past five years. That includes South Carolina, which has gone from better-than-average in 2011 to worse than average today as presidential candidates focus on winning the state’s primaries this month.

That is an opportunity to hold conservative lawmakers accountable for their failure to make progress in addressing a key symptom of racial inequity, and for progressive candidates to explain to African-American communities what they would do differently to make a real difference.

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