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.
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.
“You can call it a class thing, but I don’t think that’s what it is,” says Douglas Besharov, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland in College Park. “Some of it is long-term discrimination and lack of access to education, but much more in this recession it’s determined by which sector that’s suffering the most.”
From November of 2007, the month before the official start of the recession, to February of 2009, “there was no net job loss among professionals or managers,” says Sum.
Contradicting media reports that job loss has been widespread in this recession, he adds: “All the job loss has been among blue-collar jobs – construction, manufacturing, and retail.”
These are the jobs black men have long sought, settling for high-school diplomas in order to get these relatively well paid posts, suggests Terry Getter, an unemployed accountant waiting in line at the Atlanta unemployment office. But they are now feeling the consequences of not continuing their education.
African-American women have fared better in the downturn, says Sum. That may be partly because of their higher levels of education. In a departure from the trends of the past two recessions, those who have lost their jobs in this one “overwhelmingly ... had 12 or less years of school,” he adds.
Correspondingly, his data suggest that, as of January, about 120 African-American women were employed for every 100 African-American men. “The current size of the overall gap in employment between black women and black men is historically unprecedented, and black Americans are the only group for whom the gender employment gap is in favor of women,” the report notes.
As a result, the onus for the community’s well-being has fallen primarily on women, adding more burdens to a group that, historically, has upheld the black family, says Sheri Parks, author of the upcoming book “Fierce Angels” about the role of strong black women in American culture.
Part of the reason, she says, is that black communities have historically protected young men and expected more of young women, particularly when it comes to schooling. “If you’re a black woman, you don’t have to convince someone that you’re strong and nurturing and able to do almost anything – it’s almost a brand,” says Ms. Parks. “The prevalent image of a black man is what we call hyper-masculine and often idealized, but not necessarily in the workplace.”
This means black women also tend to enter their job hunt with a greater sense of urgency, says Tim Ready, director of the Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
“Women are more likely to take whatever jobs are necessary because they end up being the primary caretakers for kids,” he says. “They have no choice.”
At a time when Mr. Obama’s election has encouraged a debate about what race means in modern America, the job-loss figures reveal enduring problems that remain unaddressed, say some.
“When we say ‘postracial,’ we focus a lot on ideas, attitudes, and identity and not on outcomes: jobs, wages, and those things,” says Steven Pitts, a policy analyst with the Center for Labor Research and Education in Berkeley, Calif. “It’s important to look at the question of how we are passing out resources, jobs, education, wages, and wealth. That’s how you begin your analysis on postrace.”