For years, Americans have been told that going to college was the best protection against unemployment. That hasn’t been the case for African Americans during the Great Recession, with a jobless rate nearly double that of their white counterparts. And experts say the gap could widen in the slow recovery.
Black Americans have long suffered the highest unemployment rate of any ethnic group in the country, and this recession has only exacerbated a long-standing divergence.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate for black Americans in January was 15.7 percent, compared with 8 percent for whites. Although a recent report shows that the unemployment rate fell to a two-year low of 8.9 percent in February, the Economic Policy Institute — a nonpartisan economic think tank — projects that national unemployment for blacks will reach a 25-year high this year, with the rates in five states exceeding 20 percent.
Black college graduates have not been spared.
At the end of 2010, black Americans, 25 years old and older, with a college education had an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, while the rate for white college graduates was 4.2 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Other minority groups, such as Asian college graduates and Hispanics, hover a shade over 5.5 percent, while the rate for blacks was expected to continue climbing.
Cary Fraser, a professor of labor and industrial relations at Penn State University, believes that several factors contribute to high unemployment in the black community.
First, as corporations continue to relocate thousands of jobs to lower-cost markets in more rural areas, many of the opportunities that were once available to black workers in metropolitan centers are now nonexistent.
“African-American professionals have been largely located in the older cities,” Fraser says. “Except for maybe places like Atlanta, you will find that there is a higher concentration of the black professional population in the bigger cities.”
He believes that black unemployment may end up causing a long-term shift in the country’s demographics as many migrate to where the jobs are. “In education, for example, there are many schools in the South that are in desperate need of good teachers,” Fraser says. “What we have to ask ourselves is, will we start to see young black college grads leaving the Northeast to teach in the South?” He cites the migration of the auto industry from American-based manufacturers in Detroit to European and Japanese automakers in Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina as an example of a significant shift in opportunity.
The second factor in high joblessness among blacks is what Fraser describes as “class-origin distinction.” He says that a large number of black professionals are first-generation college graduates who don’t have the same kinds of networks as an earlier generation of African Americans. “They’re just not as savvy and as prepared for the work force when they leave college as the older generation was.”
Fraser believes that colleges and universities share the blame for not adequately preparing students for the job market. “Many of the institutions are failing these kids and are just taking them in as a way of financing themselves.”