Note to readers: I’m angry as I’m writing this message. I hope it helps spur some serious reflection, and action.
Black unemployment, particularly for Black men, has been accepted as fact for so long that our policymakers now just mostly ignore it. That has to stop, now.
As the economic damage from the pandemic starts to really hit home, it’s time to start acknowledging this truth and working on solutions. Take a look at this chart:
Black unemployment has been above 10% for almost all of the time on record, while White unemployment has been that high less than 1% of the time. (And this can’t be explained by differences in age, education, etc.)¹ These numbers hide the long-term structural issue of Black folks, especially men, who have given up looking for jobs, which means the true true unemployment rate is likely 25% or more.²
When you zoom in on the pandemic period, it’s no better:
In May and June, while employment for White people rebounded, Black and Latinx people saw only a very slight recovery.
Unemployment doesn’t just cause economic harm. It is linked to mental health issues, substance abuse, and a spike in suicides. And long-term unemployment for young Black men is deeply tied to mass incarceration, as well as displacement and gentrification.³
We’re heading into a period of deep economic suffering for many and especially for Black folks in America — where we’ll see evictions, layoffs, homelessness, dropping out of school, and worse. A quick survey shows that all of this hits non-Whites worse than Whites: we’re more likely to be renters, more likely to lose our jobs, more likely to be renters and housing-vulnerable, less likely to get small business loans.
I want our elected officials to start talking about structural Black unemployment. Because as we care for each other and work to reduce the harm from this depression, we’ve also got to build a better system. Any “recovery” that leaves Black men with a structural higher unemployment rate than White folks is a failure.
We need to start seeing progress soon, and our policymakers CAN do something about it. Long-term, we need to see debt forgiveness and look at other ways of addressing the wealth gap. We need to end mass incarceration and provide more and better training and job opportunities for Black folks (and of course Latinx folks and immigrants too). We need employers and regulators to enforce anti-discrimination laws in hiring and employment.
And none of that can happen until our leaders start talking honestly about Black unemployment.
There are a few things that should happen in the short term, and you can help:
From CityLife/VidaUrbana: Ask your state legislator to extend the moratorium on evictions in Massachusetts
From People’s Action: Call your Congressmember to pass a People’s Bailout
From ProgressiveMassachusetts: Learn how your state senator voted on the Reform – Shift – Build Act for Police Accountability
Graph images from:
Lance Lambert, “A double-digit unemployment rate is the norm for Black Americans and a rarity for white Americans,” Fortune, July 6, 2020.
Jonelle Marte, “Gap in U.S. Black and white unemployment rates is widest in five years,” Reuters, July 2, 2020
More information and citations:
1. Olugbenga Ajilore, “On the Persistence of the Black-White Unemployment Gap,” Center for American Progress, February 24, 2020.
2. Heidi Shierholz, “Nearly 11% of the workforce is out of work with no reasonable chance of getting called back to a prior job,” Economic Policy Institute, June 29, 2020.
3. “Black Male Millennial Unemployment and Mental Health“, American Psychological Association, August 2018.
4. Linda Harris, “Feel the Heat! The Unrelenting Challenge of Young Black Male Unemployment,” CLASP, October 2013.