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Job losses hit black men hardest

Some 8 percent of black men in the US have lost their jobs since November 2007, according to a recent study.

By Staff writer, Yvonne ZippCorrespondent / March 15, 2009

Blue-collar blues: Michael Fullbright finishes painting the lines of a church parking lot in San Jose, Calif.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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Atlanta and Kalamazoo, Mich.

At a time when America has elected its first black president, more African-American men are losing jobs than at any time since World War II.

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No group has been hit harder by the downturn. Employment among black men has fallen 7.8 percent since November of 2007, according to a report by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

The trend is intimately tied to education, the report’s authors say. Black women – who are twice as likely as black men to go to college – have faced no net job losses. By contrast, black men are disproportionately employed in those blue-collar jobs that have been most highly affected – think third shifts at rural manufacturing plants.

It threatens to add to the difficulties of vulnerable families in a community already beset by high incarceration rates and low graduation numbers.

Moreover, it puts renewed focus on the cultural and economic stereotypes of black women and men – mythologies and realities about the black family that remain challenging for the country, and Washington, to address.

In terms of job-loss rate for African-American men, “nothing comes close to this,” says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies and an author of the report, noting that the job-loss rate for African-American men during the Great Depression is unknown.

Federal data indicate all demographic groups have been affected. The number of men looking for full-time work has nearly doubled in the last year, regardless of race or ethnicity, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. But the Northeastern study concludes that during the past 15 months, “the relative decline in black male employment was considerably higher than that of their male counterparts in the other three race-ethnic groups” – Asians, Hispanics, and whites.

The job-loss figures come at a time when many lower-income black homeowners are already at risk of foreclosure. “They have zero opportunity to refinance or borrow in any way to get over the rough patch of unemployment,” writes Tom Hertz, a labor economist, in an e-mail.
The employment rate among African-American men aged 20 to 24 is now just 51 percent, as opposed to 68 percent during the late 1990s. For African-American teens, it’s just 14 percent.

“A lot of family heads are being affected and a lot of the young guys,” says Professor Sum of Northeastern. “When you get a job loss of that magnitude it’s just totally destructive [to] communities.”

Unemployed black men like Anthony Gilmore aren’t surprised by the findings. Laid off five months ago from a call center, Mr. Gilmore recently interviewed for a job detailing cars. A Hispanic man got the job.

The perception among many black men like Gilmore is that the economy has merely laid bare the historic prejudices that still exist.

“There’s still very much a system that really is designed to keep people at a disadvantage,” he said while waiting Friday outside an Atlanta unemployment office.

Yet black men can be bound as much by deeper labor trends as cultural stereotypes, says Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Especially in the South, black men often pay a price for demanding workplace rights gained in the Civil Rights movement – demands for days off and being able to say no to overtime, for example. Hispanic workers, particularly, aren’t as likely to claim those rights, making them easier hires, says Professor Rachleff.

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