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Recovering US job market is leaving black men behind

The unemployment rate for black men stands at 17 percent, more than double that of white men. An education gap, criminal records, and racial bias all contribute to problems in the job market, experts say. What type of intervention would help?

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By the time they were 30, 22 percent of black men born between 1965 and 1969 had been incarcerated, compared with 3 percent of white men the same age, according to one study. And surveys show that a majority of employers are reluctant to hire someone with a criminal record.

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On Tuesday, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) held a commission meeting to examine whether criminal background checks were adversely affecting the job prospects of workers of color. In 1990, the EEOC concluded that “an employer may not base an employment decision on the conviction record of an applicant or employee absent business necessity.” According to the National Employment Law Project that means employers must take into account reasonable factors such as the age and seriousness of the offense in relation to the specific job at issue

On a recent morning at a career center on New York's Staten Island, Jamal Lump­kin, who left prison in September after serving 10 years for drug-related crimes, recounts his job-seeking experience. He says several interviews went well – until the employer asked about criminal background.

"When we get out, nobody wants to give us an opportunity," says Mr. Lumpkin. He has started to feel desperate, he says.

Employers' perceptions about criminality among black men may even affect job prospects for African-American men who have never done time. One study found that black men without criminal ­records "have as much difficulty [getting hired] as white males with a criminal record," says Algernon Austin of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. "And black males with a criminal record are worse off than black males without one."

Discrimination remains an issue, too. When a Chicago fair employment group sent out "matched pairs" – that is, white and black people with the same credentials – whites were offered jobs 16 percent more often than African-Americans were, says Christine Owens of the NELP, which advocates on behalf of the jobless.

Municipal jobs, which many African-Americans see as a haven from racial bias, are in short supply these days. There are 430,000 fewer government jobs since the recession ended in June 2009, according to the Labor Department's Ms. Stevenson.

"We have flocked to government by the throngs," says Congressman Cleaver, "because it represented opportunity and a place where you are least likely to experience racial bigotry."

What to do?

The Obama administration – which is, after all, led by an African-American man – is hardly oblivious to lingering racial bias in the workplace or soaring black male unemployment. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, in a phone interview, says she has beefed up her department's investigative division, which deals with workplace bias and other illegal practices. "We have almost doubled and tripled investigations," says Ms. Solis, compared with 2008 levels.

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