What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Jobs: The Continuing
Scandal of African-American Joblessness
Like the country it governs, Washington is a city of extremes. In a car, you can
zip in bare moments from northwest District of Columbia, its streets lined with
million-dollar homes and palatial embassies, its inhabitants sporting one of the
nation’s lowest jobless rates, to Anacostia, a mostly forgotten neighborhood
in southeastern D.C. with one of the highest unemployment rates anywhere in America.
Or, if you happen to be jobless, upset about it, and living in that neighborhood,
on a crisp morning last March you could have joined an angry band of protesters
marching on the nearby 11th Street Bridge.
They weren’t looking for trouble. They were looking for work.
Those protesters, most of them black, chanted and hoisted signs that read “D.C.
JOBS FOR D.C. RESIDENTS” and “JOBS OR ELSE.” The target of their
outrage: contractors hired to replace the very bridge under their feet, a $300 million
project that will be one of the largest in District history.1
The problem: few D.C. citizens, which means few African-Americans, had so far been
hired. “It’s deplorable,” insisted civil rights attorney Donald
Temple, “that . . . you can find men from West Virginia to work in D.C. You
can find men from Maryland to work in D.C. And you can find men from Virginia to
work in D.C. But you can’t find men and women in D.C. to work in D.C.”2
The 11th Street Bridge arches over the slow-flowing Anacostia River, connecting
the poverty stricken, largely black Anacostia neighborhood with the rest of the
District. By foot the distance is small; in opportunity and wealth, it couldn’t
be larger. At one end of the bridge the economy is booming even amid a halting recovery
and jobs crisis. At the other end, hard times, always present, are worse than ever.
Live in Washington long enough and you’ll hear someone mention “east
of the river.” That’s D.C.’s version of “the other side of
the tracks,” the place friends warn against visiting late at night or on your
own. It’s home to District Wards 7 and 8, neighborhoods with a long, rich
history. Once known as Uniontown, Anacostia was one of the District’s first
suburbs; Frederick Douglass, nicknamed the “Sage of Anacostia,” once lived
there, as did the poet Ezra Pound and singer Marvin Gaye. Today the area’s
unemployment rate is 20 percent and, in some pockets, even higher.3 District-wide, it’s 10.8 percent,4 a figure that drops
as low as 3.6 percent in the whiter, more affluent northwestern suburbs.
D.C.’s divide is America’s writ large. Nationwide, the unemployment
rate for black workers at 16.7 percent5
is almost double the 9.1 percent rate for the rest of the population. And it’s
twice the 8 percent6 white
The size of those numbers can, in part, be chalked up to the current jobs crisis
in which black workers are being decimated. According to
Duke University public policy expert William Darity, that means blacks are
“the last to be hired in a good economy, and when there’s a downturn,
they’re the first to be released.”
That may account for the soaring numbers of unemployed African-Americans, but not
the yawning chasm between the black and white employment rates, which is no artifact
of the present moment. It’s a problem that spans generations, goes remarkably
unnoticed, and condemns millions of black Americans to a life of scraping by. That
unerring, unchanging gap between white and black employment figures goes back at
least sixty years. It should be a scandal, but whether on Capitol Hill or in the
media it gets remarkably little attention. Ever.
The unemployment lines run through history like a pair of train tracks. Since the
1940s, the jobless rate for blacks in America has held remarkably, if grimly, steady
at twice the rate for whites. The question of why has vexed and divided economists,
historians, and sociologists for nearly as long.
For years the sharpest minds in academia pointed to upheaval in the American economy
as the culprit. In his 1996 book When Work Disappears, the sociologist
William Julius Wilson depicted the forces of globalization, a slumping manufacturing
sector, and suburban flight at work in Chicago as the drivers of growing joblessness
and poverty in America’s inner cities and among its black residents.7
He pictured the process this way: as corporations outsourced jobs to China and India,
American manufacturing began its slow fade, shedding jobs often held by black workers.
What jobs remained were moved to sprawling offices and factories in outlying suburbs
reachable only by freeway. Those jobs proved inaccessible to the mass of black workers
who remained in the inner cities and relied on public transportation to get to work.
Time and research have, however, eaten away at the significance of Wilson’s
work. The hollowing out of America’s cities and the decline of domestic manufacturing
no doubt played a part in black unemployment, but then chronic black joblessness
existed long before the upheaval Wilson described. Even when employment in the manufacturing
sector was at its height, black workers were still twice as likely to be out of
work as their white counterparts.
Another commonly cited culprit for the tenaciousness of African-American unemployment
has been education. Whites, so the argument goes, are generally better educated
than blacks, and so more likely to land a job at a time when a college degree is
ever more significant when it comes to jobs and higher earnings. In 2009, President
Obama told reporters that education was the key to narrowing racial gaps in the
U.S. “If we close the achievement gap, then a big chunk of economic inequality
in this society is diminished,” he said.8
Educational levels have, in fact, steadily climbed over the past sixty years for
African-Americans. In 1940, less than 1 percent of black men and less than 2 percent
of black women earned college degrees; jump to 2000, and the figures are 10 percent
for black men and 15 percent for black women. Moreover, increased education has
helped to narrow wage inequality between employed whites and blacks. What it hasn’t
done is close the unemployment gap.
Algernon Austin, an economist for the
Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., crunched data from the Bureau
of Labor Statistics and found that blacks with the same level of education as whites
have consistently lower employment levels. It doesn’t matter whether you compare
high-school dropouts or workers with graduate degrees, whites are still more likely
to have a job than blacks. Degrees be damned.
Academics have thrown plenty of other explanations at the problem: declining wages,
the embrace of crime as a way of life, increased competition with immigrants. None
of them have stuck. How could they? In recent decades, the wage gap has narrowed,
crime rates have plummeted, and there’s scant evidence to suggest immigrants
are stealing jobs that would otherwise be filled by African-Americans.
Indeed, many top researchers in this field, including several I interviewed, are
left scratching their heads when trying to explain why that staggering jobless gap
between blacks and whites won’t budge. “I don’t know if there’s
anybody out there who can tell you why that ratio stays at two to one,” Darity
says. “It’s a statistical regularity that we don’t have an explanation
So what keeps blacks from cutting into those employment figures? Among the theories,
one that deserves special attention points to the high incarceration rate among
blacks—and especially black men.
In 2009, 7.2 million Americans—or 3.1 percent of all adults—were under the jurisdiction
of the U.S. corrections system, including 1.6 million Americans incarcerated in
a state or federal prison. Of that population, nearly 40 percent were black, even
though blacks make up only 13 percent of the American population.9
Blacks were six times as likely to be in prison as whites, and three times as likely
as Hispanics. For some perspective, consider what the author of The New Jim Crow,