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Black jobs recovery on life support

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"Where there is massive unemployment in the black community, it is called a social problem. But when there is massive unemployment in the white community, it is called a depression."   -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Local 1199 Salute to Freedom March, 1968.

The  Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words have never been truer.

The black community is suffering a major depression.

One in nine African Americans cannot find work, according to “The State of the Dream 2004” report that the economic civil rights group United for A Fair Economy produced earlier this year.

Even with the economy producing more jobs last month than it has in four years, black unemployment continues to rise. This month's Labor Department report puts black unemployment at 10.2 percent -- nearly twice that of Whites.

That's not news to professionals such as Vanessa Henry, 24, a Baltimore schoolteacher.

"I never thought I'd be unemployed this long," says Henry, who is getting by with help from her parents after 10 months of unemployment. "I've applied for jobs, and they say, `We've been inundated with resumes.' Many of the offers are so low, you think, 'How am I supposed to live? '"

She is not alone, by a long shot. At least half of all jobless black workers, according to the Congressional black Caucus, have been out of work 10 months or more. And those who simply gave up looking for work don’t even show up in the jobless numbers.

A Million Turned Off

For instance, in Massachusetts , which lost 200,000 jobs over the past three years, officials say the state unemployment rate dropped from 5.6 percent in January to 5.3 in February mostly because thousands of job-seekers considered their work search futile.

Nationally, the number of discouraged job-hunters is estimated at more than a million.

You'd think they'd find some optimism in the March jobs numbers.  Unfortunately, there wasn't much to cheer. While the economy produced roughly 308,000 jobs last month -- a fraction of the 2.2 million jobs that have vanished in the last three years -- unemployment went up any way because there were just as many or more new workers looking for work as those out of work.

"Certainly, there's been a big improvement over the last few months, but it's not at a level that can really sustain a recovery," says Dr. Charles Betsey, a Howard University economist. "It would require between 1.5 and 2 million jobs every year to keep up with the growth in the population. We're clearly not at that rate."

Bleaker for black Men

The picture is even bleaker for black men, half of whom are out of work in New York and other major urban centers, according to labor reports.

"Quite frankly, there's a public policy indifference," says Julianne Malveax, an economist and nationally syndicated columnist. "Imagine how we would respond if we had 50 percent of White men who were unemployed. For some people it's OK for black men to be unemployed."

The reasons for the difference in black and White unemployment are as complex as they are insidious, economists say.

Over the past several decades the unemployment rate for blacks has been double that of whites. The exception was at the start of the new millennium. black unemployment fell to below 7 percent in 1999 and 2000, the lowest rate on record, says Betsy Leondar-Wright, a sociologist and co-author of the State of the Dream 2004.

At the time black workers were enjoying the highest level of employment, the nation also was experiencing unprecedented economic growth. Overall unemployment in 2000 was at an all-time low of 4 percent and, contrary to what many economists theorized, black unemployment dropped, too, without setting off inflation.

But now black workers are battling the worst job market in 25 years. And, in an anemic economy, black workers have a harder time bouncing back, says Leondar-Wright and other observers. In part, they say, you can blame a deficit in the job skills and education needed to compete. It's also a matter of location.

Places with the greatest number of layoffs -- 50 workers or more -- are black strongholds. For instance, there were 1,000 layoffs at Ford in St. Louis and 3,000 at Cigna in Philadelphia , reports United for A Fair Economy.

"When Autoliv closed its seat belt plant in Indianapolis , more than 75 percent of the laid-off workers were African Americans," Michael Barnes, director of an Indiana AFL-CIO training program for laid-off workers, told A Fair Economy.

Gains Wiped Out

"Many of them are young adults hired in the late 1990s labor shortage, despite lacking a high school diploma, who now have few options," he says. "They were taken from the street into decent-paying jobs...started families, dug in, took apartments, purchased vehicles. It was an up-from-the-street experience for them, and now they are being returned to their old environment."

Location, non-competitive skills and education are only half of the story. Another significant factor in high black unemployment that some market analysts say cannot be swept under the rug is job discrimination.

The Discrimination Factor

"Half of the racial difference [in unemployment figures] you can attribute to a difference in skills. The rest you have to attribute to racism," Patrick Mason, a Florida State economist who also presides over the National Economic Association, said, adding that the "last hired, first fired" rule still applies to black workers.

"The State of the Dream 2004" report, sites a University of Chicago and Massachusetts Institute of Technology study that found that job applicants with "White-sounding" names were 50 percent more likely to be invited for an initial interview than those with "black-sounding" names in the same skill set.

What needs to happen to improve black employment? Many observers say it will take a combination of more federal dollars specifically targeting black workers with job training programs. Still others say programs won't help much unless there's a national effort to root out job discrimination.

National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial put it this way in the League's report on the state of black America: "The last recession has had a severe and disproportionate impact on African Americans and minority communities, and the creation of jobs must be the first and foremost agenda of the nation's business, labor and political leaders."