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)

* For most of the last 50 years, black unemployment has remained about two times higher than the white joblessness rate, and in some major cities it engulfs more than a third of working-age black men (pdf). That trend continues in 2013.

* Also worth noting: Education has proved a limited buffer for black workers. Black workers with college degrees or more enjoy a lower unemployment rate than those with or without high school diplomas. But at every educational level, black workers remain unemployed at roughly twice the rate of their white peers. That’s a pattern that persists even among those with bachelor’s degrees or more.

* In fact, in 2012, the most recent year for which annual data are available, the unemployment rate for blacks with a college degree or more sat at 6.3 percent. That figure is equal to the unemployment rate experienced by white Americans with some college education but no bachelor’s degree.

* Black workers remain clustered in a limited number of industries, including government, the service industry and retail — the last two of which offer some of the nation’s lowest wages (pdf). And a continued spate of layoffs and furloughs in one sector that has consistently provided middle-class wages to black workers — state, local and federal government — not only has reduced the share of blacks who are working but also has cut into average weekly take-home pay.

* Government figures for weekly median wages of full-time workers point to another of those troubling racial economic inequalities. In June, the most recent figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly wage for full-time salaried and hourly black wageworkers sat at $634, compared with $799 for white workers. Although white workers’ wages overall climbed by a few dollars in the second quarter of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012 — because of slight gains by white women — black workers’ wages (pdf, Table 2) fell by almost the same amount that white workers’ earnings rose.

* Although the gender wage gap receives a great deal of annual attention, the difference between the median wages of men and women persists and takes on additional, economically damaging forms across racial lines (pdf). In 2012, the most recent period for which annual data are available, white women working full time earned a median wage of $719 each week, compared with $879 earned by their white male peers. Meanwhile, black men employed full time earned a median of $665 each week, while black women earned $599. Latinas working full time took home the nation’s lowest median weekly wages: $521.

* In black families, women’s wages have long accounted for a larger share of household income than in white families. But deindustrialization — the disappearance of manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs beginning in the late 1970s — has been particularly hard on the employment prospects of black men. Almost the same percentage of black women and black men are working (pdf; see “Employment-population ratio” for men and women), a situation that has never existed for any other racial or ethnic group. That small gap indicates that very few black families can survive on a man’s income alone.

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.