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African-American unemployment is double that of whites. Why?

Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated for both civil rights and the economic betterment of those at the bottom of the income ladder. And while the civil rights movement has delivered upward mobility for many African-Americans, it hasn't had much impact on the persistently high level of African-American unemployment.

Since the Great Recession ended, African-Americans have been getting back to work slowly, just like the rest of the population. But one thing hasn’t changed much over several decades: the disparity between African-Americans and whites in the job market.

“The black unemployment rate is typically twice that of the white unemployment rate -- in good times and even in bad times,” says William Rodgers, chief economist at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. “We’re creating jobs, we’ve got economic growth, but it’s not enough to move down the job ladder to young minorities, to teenagers, to young millennials who have just graduated from college.”

In the late 1960s, about 7 percent of blacks were unemployed, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, the rate is about 12 percent.

Margaret Simms at the Urban Institute says the uneven jobs recovery following the Great Recession poses particular challenges. There is still a high degree of residential segregation in the U.S., and places that have been booming, where employers are desperate for workers -- like North Dakota -- don’t necessarily have a lot of minority job-seekers.

“African-Americans tend to be geographically concentrated in communities where jobs are not growing fast,” says Simms, “and in some cases there are very few jobs available.”

Simms says African-Americans are also heavily represented in the public sector, as bus drivers, schoolteachers, case-workers. A lot of those jobs -- mostly with union representation and often coming with good salary and benefits -- have been cut since the recession.

Finally, Simms says racial discrimination in hiring is still a factor. This is demonstrated in so-called audit studies, in which candidates with matching credentials and previous job experience are presented to potential employers, with the only difference between them being their imputed race.

“African-Americans are the least likely to be called in for an interview, the least likely to get a job offer,” says Simms. “They’ll be dressed similarly in these studies and have the same diction, so it’s not that there are differences in the way they make appearances. This does not seem to be related to their skill or their presentation.”

William Rodgers points out that young African-Americans also face a unique set of challenges. In minority-dominated communities with high unemployment, they lack good job networks—friends and family who can connect them to promising employment opportunities.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.
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