The State of the Black Worker: A Primer

Although some news is good, African Americans still face vast inequalities in the workforce.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — In 1935, when Congress passed the Social Security Act, supporters declared it one of the pivotal moments in the country’s history.  

The act, which created a guaranteed income source for most American workers during retirement, was a declaration of the country’s faith that the economy would not only rebound from the Great Depression but also flourish.

But for black workers, there was just one problem.

In order to secure the support of a contingent of Southern Democrats in Congress, the Roosevelt administration — architects of many of the policies that continue to govern work, pay and workplace conditions today — struck a deal. Domestic workers and farmhands — domestic work and farming were fields in which nearly two-thirds of all blacks were employed at the time — were excluded. A full 65 percent of black American workers got nothing. No guaranteed retirement. No guaranteed income in old age. The exclusion remained in place until the 1950s.

It’s just another example of the uphill climb that black workers have faced throughout history. Indeed, the real story of work in the United States is one that includes slavery, along with other forms of exploitation and unfair treatment that have always rendered some workers better paid and more often recognized and rewarded. And those divisions have often occurred along racial lines. That history makes the state of the black worker in 2013 worthy of a closer look this Labor Day.

“Black unemployment is and has long been a crisis, but somehow unseen or at least largely misunderstood,” says Algernon Austin, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy. “The worst levels of unemployment experienced by whites nationally correspond to the absolute best that blacks have ever experienced in the last 50 years.”

Still, some of the news is good.

* Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, a large share of the black population is employed or actively seeking work. In fact, when the Department of Labor released its first comprehensive, postrecession look at black workers, it found that in 2011, blacks made up roughly 13 percent of the nation’s population and more than 11 percent of the country’s workforce. That trend has continued.

* While black unemployment remains elevated, it is improving. In July, the most recent month for which detailed national information (pdf) is available, 12.6 percent of black workers (pdf), or roughly 2.35 million men, women and teens, remained unemployed. Black unemployment has edged downward for much of 2013. It has also dropped off sharply from a high of 16.5 percent, which it reached in January 2010.

* Educational-attainment levels, the term that economists use to describe just how far individuals go in school, continue to climb. In fact, nearly 85 percent of black Americans over the age of 25 have completed high school, and just over 20 percent have a bachelor’s degree or more, according to the most recent federal data. Both figures have climbed considerably in the last two decades. In addition, the share of black students completing college or graduate degrees has nearly doubled.

* Education boosts most workers’ wages and has, to a limited degree, narrowed the nation’s racial income gap. Black workers have also become the most unionized portion of the American workforce. Although opinions vary about the value of union membership, when it comes to pay, the benefits are clear and indisputable.

But the fight continues for equal pay; access to new, developing and high-paying industries; and on-the-job advancement. Here are some ways that African Americans are still left behind in the workforce.