Unemployment is bad for everyone, but it’s doubly bad for black Americans. That’s because the unemployment rate among black job-seekers is roughly twice the rate for whites — and has been since the government started keeping track of the disparity more than 40 years ago.
There is no simple explanation for this gap. It’s not because black workers are less educated, or less likely to marry, or happen to live in struggling parts of the country. Researchers have tried adjusting for all of these variables, but still there remains some unexplained force holding African Americans back in the labor market. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it must be related to the lingering legacy of racial discrimination.
This poses a problem for the idea — recently raised by President Trump — that the solution to our country’s racial divide is more jobs. That could certainly help. But jobs in America seem to get divvied up according to an unequal logic, with whites generally coming out on top.
Note that this is chiefly a black-and-white issue. With Hispanic workers, the dynamic is quite different. True, Hispanic workers also have a consistently higher unemployment rate than whites. But a recent working paper from economists at the Federal Reserve found that this gap is largely explained by educational differences. Hispanic men with a high school degree are able to find work with about the same ease as whites who have the same level of education.
That’s not so for black workers. They experience higher unemployment regardless of educational level. Black high school graduates face a jobless rate that’s 80 percent higher than their white peers face. Among those with a bachelor’s degree, black unemployment is still 60 percent higher.
One of the innovations of the Federal Reserve paper is its ability to pin down exactly how irrelevant education is as an explanation for black unemployment. Educational differences explain less than a tenth of the unemployment discrepancy between black and white workers.
Other demographic differences don’t seem to matter much, either, including the fact that white workers are generally older, more likely to be married, and reside in wealthier parts of the country.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean we should jump to the conclusion that the job-search process is haunted by endemic racism. There are other possibilities.
Incarceration rates, for instance. African-Americans are roughly seven times more likely to spend time in prison before age 35. Fairly or unfairly, that could blight a lot of resumes.
Still, if prison time was the driving problem, you’d expect the biggest roadblock for black job-seekers to be the hiring process itself, in which resumes count for so much.
Once an applicant is in the door, capabilities and collegiality should be able to erase any concerns about a long-ago jail sentence. But actually, black workers are only slightly less likely to find jobs than white peers. They are, instead, far more likely to lose them. It’s a reminder that the extra struggle they face doesn’t end with the signing of a contract; it affects every performance review, every meeting, every memory of who contributed what big idea.
A separate explanation for the black-white unemployment gap is that we may be measuring education incorrectly. Just because two people have the same degree doesn’t mean they have the same skills. Perhaps the reason black and white college graduates fare so differently in the labor market is because white college grads have actually learned more — or accrued a broader skill set.
There is some evidence for this view, building on an influential finding that similarly educated whites and blacks perform differently on the Armed Forces qualification test.
But in some ways, this just circles back to the question of discrimination. One big reason black Americans might graduate with fewer skills is because they disproportionately attend underfunded schools, and more broadly, because their parents (and their parents’ parents) have been getting an unequal education for much of US history.
To show the cumulative damage, another recent paper tracked upward mobility among black men since 1880. At every step, in every generation, poor white children moved up the economic ladder more consistently than poor black children, irrespective of schooling. That means black families haven’t benefited from a key mechanism of middle class stability — parents investing in education to help their children enter the middle class — and those children go on to make even broader investments in the next generation.
None of this is meant to suggest that black workers are perpetually out of luck. They benefit quite a bit from tight job markets, like our current one. Overall black unemployment has fallen over 50 percent since its recession-era peak and is currently closing in on its all-time low.
But you can’t have full employment forever. Recessions happen, and guess which group is the most likely to end up unemployed when they do, according to the Federal Reserve researchers? Black workers.
This is why more jobs can’t be the answer to the longstanding problem of disproportionate black unemployment. So long as there are barriers to equal treatment — in the form of prejudice, skills inequities, or otherwise — those jobs won’t be equally distributed.