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."
Littlejohn has a degree in marketing but doesn't feel as if the degree and the curriculum she studied gave her the focus she needed to land the right job. She agrees that racism, however subtle, plays a significant part in who gets hired. While in college, she held internships at various Fortune 500 firms and witnessed firsthand the racial politics that determined who was hired.
"Certain candidates got passed up for jobs for lesser-qualified candidates," she says. Littlejohn has been passed up for jobs in favor of male candidates, although she feels she was better qualified. She also says that appearance might be a factor.
"I have natural hair," Littlejohn says. "Oftentimes I feel like I can't be myself and have to alter my appearance by tying my hair back for a job interview. It's tough, and more so than anything else, it's a feeling of not being able to be yourself."
Fraser also believes that internal politics play a considerable role in higher black unemployment rates, saying that some companies become less inclined to hire minorities once their respective diversity-hiring goals have been met.
But he offers some advice to those who are soon to be out of college. He recommends that black college students analyze where the market is going and tailor their undergraduate studies and internships toward preparing them to compete in those areas instead of going the traditional routes. "College graduates should start looking at opportunities that are related to where the economic growth is or will be in the future, rather than where the jobs are right now."
Littlejohn has already begun to alter her mentality in her search for job opportunities. She wants to work in television as a videographer, but with so many barriers facing her, she is now working on a business plan and approaching the job market as an entrepreneur rather than a prospective employee.
If we look back at the last decade, the numbers for blacks remain disturbing. Since 2000, black Americans with college degrees have had the highest rate of unemployment among all ethnic groups at their level, even when the market was fairly stable. Yet as the economy worsened in early 2008, the gap widened and the percentage jumped from an average of 4 percent to 7.3 percent between 2008 and 2009.
That's a 3.3 percent increase in one calendar year, while unemployment for white college graduates remained relatively flat during this span at a steady average of 2.5 percent.
Lurie Daniel-Favors, a New York-based civil rights and consumer-debt attorney, says that this damaging cycle has been going on for a while, even before the current labor crisis. Black Americans have always been in a recession when it comes to jobs, and she points to a structural and systematic institutionalized racism as the primary driver.
"Blacks have always been the last hired and the first fired," she says. "Countless studies have shown that when all other things are equal, if two résumés have equal qualifications and the only difference is the ethnicity of the names of the candidates, potential employers will go with the name that sounds the most European — or the least ethnic."
Jean McGianni Celestin is a New York-based writer who covers race, jobs, sports and politics.