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Black workers' crisis may linger after upturn

The recession has compounded a decades-long problem facing black workers, leaving experts worried blacks will remain in crisis even in a recovery.
Image: Roxanne Winston
Roxanne Winston will graduate from UC Berkeley in December. Though confident she'll find work, issues of race are very much on her mind. “I kind of don’t want you to notice that I’m African-American, even though that’s such a strong part of my identity,” she says.John Brecher /

The recession has compounded a decades-long problem for black workers, who began the downturn facing a far higher jobless rate than the general population and have fared worse since.

Now experts are worried that many blacks will remain in crisis even as the economy begins to recover, largely because the recession has eliminated so many working-class jobs in sectors like manufacturing and retail that are likely to come back slowly, if at all.

“Across the board right now the job prospects are slim, but for blacks even more so than average,” said Algernon Austin, director of the program on race, ethnicity and the economy at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on issues affecting lower to middle-income workers.

Tariq Mustafa can relate. Mustafa, 30, has been looking for work since March, when he completed a temporary retail job after he was laid off from a hotel position. He estimates he has filed 100 online job applications as well as spending months pounding the pavement and visiting potential employers in person.

He said he occasionally feels that race plays a role in his inability to get a job, especially in this tight job market.

“Sometimes you come in and you ask for an application, and you know they’re hiring because it was on the Internet, and they’ll say, you know, ‘No, we’re not hiring,’ ” he said. “It’s just, it’s that vibe, just how people treat you.”

The numbers illustrate the sheer depth of the problem black workers are facing. For all the gains that black workers have made over the past 20 years, everywhere from corporate boardrooms to the White House, there remains a persistent gap between black and white unemployment rates.

Since the recession began in December 2007, the national unemployment rate has gone from 4.9 percent to 10.2 percent, while the the black unemployment rate has jumped from 8.9 percent to 15.7 percent, according to government figures.

In addition, blacks have been more likely to drop out of the labor force altogether as many have become so discouraged about job prospects that they have stopped looking for work.

The labor force participation rate for blacks has fallen from 63.4 percent of adults in December 2007 to 61.7 percent as of October. The overall labor force participation rate in the same period has fallen from 66 percent to 65.1 percent, the lowest level since 1986.

Black workers also are likely to take longer to find a new job. In 2008 blacks made up 19.3 percent of the total unemployed population but represented 25.4 percent of the people who had been unemployed for six months or longer, according to the National Employment Law Project.

In good times and bad, blacks face harsher employment prospects for many reasons, including a higher likelihood of past incarceration or homelessness, and less access to a network of friends and relatives who might have job leads. Discrimination, while less overt than in years past, still plays a role, experts say.

“The American labor market is less friendly to black workers than to white workers, and it has been for all of U.S. history,” Austin said.

'There's only one America'
Some researchers who have studied this disparity see opportunity in the nascent economic recovery. They say programs such as the government's massive $787 billion stimulus program offer a fresh chance to think about how to address racial disparities.

In the long run, these researchers argue, addressing longstanding disparities will benefit the overall economy by creating a stronger work force that can more aggressively compete on the global stage.

“There’s only one America, ultimately, as far as in the global economy," Austin said. "There’s not white America, black America, Hispanic America — there’s just one. And it’s either we’re all succeeding or we’re all failing."
Although the odds are tough, many black jobseekers who spoke to said they believe succeeding in the job market is a personal issue.

“I think it falls on the individual person, how much drive they have to want to succeed,” said Laron Blackwell, 30, who is looking for a job after completing an 11-week job training program in trade and shipping at The Workforce Collaborative, a nonprofit in Oakland. “I don’t really look at race as, like, part of why people don’t have the drive.”

Mustafa, the former hotel worker, thinks he has an advantage when job-hunting because he has a strong work history and has learned over the years how to make a good first impression.

“Some jobs don’t care about your experience sometimes — they just want to know how you look,” he said in an interview at the Oakland Career Center, where he was looking for job openings. “You know, they want to see how you present yourself and how you talk.”

Still, he does sometimes sense that race plays a role.

He recalls how he once he waited five hours to speak with a manager at a restaurant in an affluent northern California suburb, only to be turned away after many other, non-black applicants had been seen.

“In the black community it’s always like, ‘Well, if they don’t have a job, you definitely ain't getting a job,’ ” he said.

While overt racism may not be as prevalent as in decades past, subtle matters of perception, as well as structural societal issues, can have a tangible impact on job prospects for black workers, experts say.

For example, most people get jobs because of who they know. That can be a hindrance in a community that suffers higher rates of unemployment and thus fewer connections to potential jobs. The problem is compounded in a recession, when the job market is so tight that even a low-level job might require an inside recommendation.

Rising unemployment also can beget further joblessness because fewer people in the community have job connections or see role models of working family members and friends.

Olis Simmons runs a youth organization, Youth Uprising, in an area of Oakland that once boasted a large number of well-paying manufacturing jobs.

Over the years, many of those manufacturers left, leaving behind a wide swath of poverty, crime and unemployed workers — and fewer paths to adult employment.

“That actually set up a system where young people are disproportionately affected and, as a result, discouraged,” Simmons said.

Other, even more subtle issues of race and class may subconsciously affect employers’ decision-making. A 2004 study by Harvard researchers found that people in Boston and Chicago with stereotypically “white” names were more likely to get callbacks for job interviews than those with stereotypically “black” names.

Disparity at all education levels
Even black workers with a college education face higher rates of joblessness. A recent study by Austin, from EPI, found that the average unemployment rate for college graduates under age 27 in the first nine months of this year was 6.2 percent for whites and 13.3 percent for blacks.

“These are young blacks who went to college, stayed in school, but yet we still see that their unemployment rate is double that of whites,” he said.

Roxanne Winston is not surprised by that statistic. Winston, 22, will graduate from UC Berkeley in December with a degree in American studies and a resume that includes a term as student body president.

Even as she begins her post-college job search confident she will land a job, issues of race are very much on her mind.

“I want to present someone that is confident and strong and is college-educated, and I kind of don’t want you to notice that I’m African-American, even though that’s such a strong part of my identity,” she said. “I don’t want it to be something that you take into account when you’re considering employing me or not.”

“It can be a dilemma for a lot of African-Americans because it can sound like I’m not proud to be African-American, I’m not proud to be who I am, but it’s just a reality that there is race bias in employment,” she said. “It would be nice for that to not be the case, but this is the reality we’re living in.”

Among jobholders, inequalities also remain, said Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. His research has shown that black workers are more likely than white workers to hold low-wage jobs or work in less lucrative positions in the same field. In retail alone, Pitts found that 73.3 percent of black workers received low wages, compared with 62.2 percent of white retail workers.

Lower wages and higher unemployment add up to a median income for black households of  $34,218, compared with $50,303 for all U.S. households, according to the latest census data.

Experts say the situation is especially dire for blacks who face serious barriers to employment, such as a history of incarceration or homelessness.

Blacks are five times more likely to be in jail than whites, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A 2008 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that nearly 42 percent of sheltered homeless people were black.

In this tight job market some are finding that even a relatively minor offense, or one that was years in the past, can make a person unemployable.

“We’ve set a trend that’s going to still, even in the recovery of our economy ... leave out a lot of people,” said Joyce Guy, an account specialist at The Workforce Collaborative, whose clients often have a history of incarceration, addiction issues or homelessness.

"Right now, with the economy being the way it is, somebody’s going to get left out, and over the years it’s been Afro-American people that get left out."

‘I’m no longer the same person’
For Marcus Moore, who has spent 29 of his 48 years behind bars for drug-related crimes and is now homeless, it’s a struggle just to get the basic necessities for a job interview, such as appropriate clothing and money for transportation to the potential employer.

He also knows that once he gets there, his must explain his past mistakes.

“My past convicts me, you know, and that (will) be for the rest of my life,” Moore said.

Still, Moore, who was job-hunting at the Oakland Career Center on a recent day, said he is confident he will get work. He has past work experience as a supervisor for a thrift store chain and in his late mother’s restaurant, he said.

The challenge is to convince employers that he has changed in the decades since he first landed behind bars at age 18.

“I know I no longer think the same and I’m no longer the same person, you know?” he said. “All I need is an opportunity to show a company what I could really do.”