The old saying that history is bound to repeat itself takes on a special meaning when it comes to Black unemployment, a damning metric that always seems to be the highest among all groups of workers month after month. Even at its lowest, it is still head and shoulders above others.
A closer look at the data and statistics reveals some of the reasons why the Black unemployment rate is always the highest. And they’re far from the common perceptions that are often rooted in racism.
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In recent months, Black Americans have especially struggled to find employment, thanks in no small part to the rough economic picture painted by the pandemic. According to August’s job report, while the national jobless rate dropped to 5.2% from 5.4%, Black workers saw their unemployment rate rise to 8.8% despite a decrease in July.
The data was alarmingly higher and nearly double the employment rate for white Americans, who saw a decrease in unemployment falling to 4.5 percent from 4.8.
It all added up to a collective fear about the future for Black workers.
The truth is, Black unemployment rates have been steadily climbing over the last decade. Of course, the pandemic certainly exacerbated those stark numbers as of recently, but the problem has been prevalent in the community for a while now. According to an article written by the Centers For American Progress, between January 1972 and December 2019, the African American unemployment rate “has been twice as high” compared to the rate for whites. The rate briefly dropped during 2008’s Great Recession, but the numbers did not show a significant enough improvement in the years that followed.
Between January 1972 and December 2019, it never reached as low as 1 1/2 times the white rate, the report noted.
A recent study conducted by the Brookings Institution found that in metro areas, the unemployment rate was six times higher among African Americans than white folks.
So what’s causing the Black unemployment gap?
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For African American men, mass incarceration plays a significant role in their lower labor force participation. According to the American Journal of Sociology, “African American men are more likely to be incarcerated following an arrest” than white Americans while “formerly incarcerated individuals of all races experience difficulties in gaining employment.”
Black men facing a history of criminal behavior on their records are more times than not affected by racial bias during the hiring process. Recruitment agencies have rallied to “ban the box,” something which would prohibit employers from asking applicants about their past involvement in the criminal justice system to prevent hiring discrimination –another structural barrier that continues to hinder the Black male unemployment rate.
Black people have been exiting the workforce in higher numbers compared to other racial groups. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the Black labor force participation rate plunged to 58.6 percent — the lowest level it had ever fallen since 1974, Quartz reported.
While the data was able to rebound, the news was still grim for the Black labor force. This could have been for a number of reasons; one being that Blacks were and have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Black Americans are also more likely to be employed in low-wage service industry and hospitality jobs that were especially hit hard during the pandemic’s stronghold last year resulting in a large number of job losses in those sectors. Many Black parents were forced to give up their jobs to stay at home as children were tasked with online learning. Black women felt the brunt of this, in particular.
Even with the astronomical rate of unemployment for Black men, it still remains considerably less than that of Black women.
According to a study conducted by the Washington Post, there were “550,000 fewer adult Black women working now than in February 2020.” Exorbitant costs and a lack of adequate child care played a large role in the setback.
The data also debunks the popular (and racist) narrative that Black people are lazy and would prefer to live off of government benefits than actually work a job.
Ultimately, the unemployment rate measures how many people are actively looking for work, and Black people have always been resilient in their job searches. Valerie Wilson of The Economic Policy Institute suggested that Black people have always been actively searching for work, but are having a harder time finding positions. The research indicates that before the recession hit Americans hard in 2008, the unemployment rate was beginning to draw down in 2007 with the rate falling to a “2.8 percent” decline versus the unemployment rate for whites which saw a decline at “3.3 percent.”
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