July 2011, Week 1


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Tue, 5 Jul 2011 21:38:30 -0400
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What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Jobs

By Andy Kroll
July 5, 2011


This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com [1]. 
Like the country it governs, Washington is a city of
extremes. In a car, you can zip in bare moments from
northwest District of Columbia, its streets lined with
million-dollar homes and palatial embassies, its inhabitants
sporting one of the nation's lowest jobless rates, to
Anacostia, a mostly forgotten neighborhood in southeastern
D.C. with one of the highest unemployment rates anywhere in
America. Or, if you happen to be jobless, upset about it, and
living in that neighborhood, on a crisp morning in March you
could have joined an angry band of protesters marching on the
nearby 11th Street Bridge.

They weren't looking for trouble. They were looking for work.

Those protesters, most of them black, chanted and hoisted
signs that read "D.C. JOBS FOR D.C. RESIDENTS" and "JOBS OR
ELSE." The target of their outrage: contractors hired to
replace the very bridge under their feet, a $300 million
project that will be one of the largest [3] in District
history. The problem: few D.C. citizens, which means few
African Americans, had so far been hired. "It's deplorable,"
insisted [4] civil rights attorney Donald Temple, "that...you
can find men from West Virginia to work in D.C. You can find
men from Maryland to work in D.C. And you can find men from
Virginia to work in D.C. But you can't find men and women in
D.C. to work in D.C."

The 11th Street Bridge arches over the slow-flowing Anacostia
River, connecting the poverty-stricken, largely black
Anacostia neighborhood with the rest of the District. By foot
the distance is small; in opportunity and wealth, it couldn’t
be larger. At one end of the bridge the economy is booming
even amid a halting recovery and jobs crisis. At the other
end, hard times, always present, are worse than ever.

Live in Washington long enough and you'll hear someone
mention "east of the river." That's D.C.'s version of "the
other side of the tracks," the place friends warn against
visiting late at night or on your own. It's home to District
Wards 7 and 8, neighborhoods with a long, rich history. Once
known as Uniontown, Anacostia was one of the District's first
suburbs; Frederick Douglass, nicknamed the "Sage of
Anacostia," [5] once lived there, as did the poet Ezra Pound
and singer Marvin Gaye. Today the area's unemployment rate is
officially nearly 20% [6]. District-wide, it’s 9.8% [7], a
figure that drops as low as 3.6% in the whiter, more affluent
northwestern suburbs.

D.C.'s divide is America's writ large. Nationwide, the
unemployment rate for black workers at 16.2% [8] is almost
double the 9.1% rate for the rest of the population. And it's
twice the 8% [8] white jobless rate.

The size of those numbers can, in part, be chalked up to the
current jobs crisis in which black workers are being
decimated. According to Duke University public policy expert
William Darity, that means blacks are "the last to be hired
in a good economy, and when there's a downturn, they're the
first to be released."

That may account for the soaring numbers of unemployed
African Americans, but not the yawning chasm between the
black and white employment rates, which is no artifact of the
present moment. It's a problem that spans generations, goes
remarkably unnoticed, and condemns millions of black
Americans to a life of scraping by. That unerring, unchanging
gap between white and black employment figures goes back at
least 60 years. It should be a scandal, but whether on
Capitol Hill or in the media it gets remarkably little
attention. Ever.

The 60-Year Scandal

The unemployment lines run through history like a pair of
train tracks. Since the 1940s, the jobless rate for blacks in
America has held remarkably, if grimly, steady at twice the
rate for whites. The question of why has vexed and divided
economists, historians, and sociologists for nearly as long.

For years the sharpest minds in academia pointed to upheaval
in the American economy as the culprit. In his 1996 book When
Work Disappears [9], the sociologist William Julius Wilson
depicted [10] the forces of globalization, a slumping
manufacturing sector, and suburban flight at work in Chicago
as the drivers of growing joblessness and poverty in
America's inner cities and among its black residents.

He pictured the process this way: as corporations outsourced
jobs to China and India, American manufacturing began its
slow fade, shedding jobs often held by black workers. What
jobs remained were moved to sprawling offices and factories
in outlying suburbs reachable only by freeway. Those jobs
proved inaccessible to the mass of black workers who remained
in the inner cities and relied on public transportation to
get to work.

Time and research have, however, eaten away at the
significance of Wilson's work. The hollowing-out of America's
cities and the decline of domestic manufacturing no doubt
played a part in black unemployment, but then chronic black
joblessness existed long before the upheaval Wilson
described. Even when employment in the manufacturing sector
was at its height, black workers were still twice as likely
to be out of work as their white counterparts.

Another commonly cited culprit for the tenaciousness of
African-American unemployment has been education. Whites, so
the argument goes, are generally better educated than blacks,
and so more likely to land a job at a time when a college
degree is ever more significant when it comes to jobs and
higher earnings. In 2009, President Obama told reporters [11]
that education was the key to narrowing racial gaps in the
US. "If we close the achievement gap, then a big chunk of
economic inequality in this society is diminished," he said.

Educational levels have, in fact, steadily climbed over the
past 60 years for African Americans. In 1940, less than 1% of
black men and less 2% of black women earned college degrees;
jump to 2000, and the figures are 10% for black men and 15%
for black women. Moreover, increased education has helped to
narrow wage inequality between employed whites and blacks.
What it hasn't done is close the unemployment gap.

Algernon Austin, an economist for the Economic Policy
Institute in Washington, D.C., crunched data from the Bureau
of Labor Statistics and found that blacks with the same level
of education as whites have consistently lower employment
levels. It doesn’t matter whether you compare high-school
dropouts or workers with graduate degrees, whites are still
more likely to have a job than blacks. Degrees be damned.

Academics have thrown plenty of other explanations at the
problem: declining wages, the embrace of crime as a way of
life, increased competition with immigrants.  None of them
have stuck. How could they? In recent decades, the wage gap
has narrowed, crime rates have plummeted, and there's scant
evidence to suggest immigrants are stealing jobs that would
otherwise be filled by African Americans.

Indeed, many top researchers in this field, including several
I interviewed, are left scratching their heads when trying to
explain why that staggering jobless gap between blacks and
white won't budge. "I don't know if there's anybody out there
who can tell you why that ratio stays at two to one," Darity
says. "It's a statistical regularity that we don't have an
explanation for."

Behind Bars, the Invisible Unemployed

So what keeps blacks from cutting into those employment
figures? Among the theories, one that deserves special
attention points to the high incarceration rate among blacks
-- and especially black men.

In 2009, 7.2 million Americans -- or 3.1% of all adults --
were under the jurisdiction of the US corrections system,
including 1.6 million Americans incarcerated in a state or
federal prison. Of that population, nearly 40% percent [12]
were black, even though blacks make up only 13% percent of
the American population. Blacks were six times as likely to
be in prison as whites, and three times as likely as
Hispanics. For some perspective, consider what author of The
New Jim Crow [13] Michelle Alexander wrote last year [14]:
"There are more African Americans under correctional control
today -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than
were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began."

Incarceration amounts to a double whammy when it comes to
African-American unemployment. Rarely mentioned in the usual
drumbeat of media reports on jobs is the fact that the Labor
Department doesn't include prison populations in its official
unemployment statistics. This automatically shrinks the pool
of blacks capable of working and in the process lowers the
black jobless rate.

In the mid-1990s, academics Bruce Western and Becky Pettit
discovered that the American prison population lowered the
jobless rate for black men by five percentage points, and for
young black men by eight percentage points. (Of course, this
applies to whites, Asians, and Hispanics as well, but the
figures are particularly striking given the
overrepresentation of blacks in the prison population.)

Even that vast incarcerated population pales, however, in
comparison to the number of ex-cons who have rejoined the
world beyond the prison walls. In 2008, there were 12 million
to 14 million ex-offenders in the US old enough to work,
according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research
(CEPR). So many ex-cons represent a serious drag on our
economy, according to CEPR, sucking from it $57 billion to
$65 billion in output.

Of course, such research tells us how much, not why -- as in,
why are ex-cons so much more likely to be out of work? For an
answer, it’s necessary to turn to an eye-opening and, in some
circles, controversial field of study that may offer the best
explanation for the 60-year scandal of black unemployment.

Twice as Hard, Half as Far

In 2001, a pair of black men and a pair of white men went
hunting for work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each was 23 years
old, a local college student, bright and articulate. They
looked alike and dressed alike, had identical educational
backgrounds and remarkably similar past work experience. From
June to December, they combed the Sunday classified pages in
the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and searched a state-run job
site called "Jobnet," applying for the same entry-level jobs
as waiters, delivery-truck drivers, cooks, and cashiers.
There was one obvious difference in each pair: one man was a
former criminal and the other was not.

If this sounds like an experiment, that's because it was.
Watching the explosive growth of the criminal justice system,
fueled largely by ill-conceived "tough on crime" policies,
sociologist Devah Pager took a novel approach to how prison
affected ever growing numbers of Americans after they'd done
their time -- a process all but ignored by politicians and
the judicial system.

So Pager sent those two young black men and two young white
men out into the world to apply for perfectly real jobs. Then
she recorded who got callbacks and who didn't. She soon
discovered that a criminal history caused a massive drop-off
in employer responses -- not entirely surprising. But when
Pager started separating out black applicants from white
ones, she stumbled across the real news in her study, a
discovery that shook our understanding of racial inequality
and jobs to the core.

Pager's white applicant without a criminal record had a 34%
callback rate. That promptly sunk to 17% for her white
applicant with a criminal record. The figures for black
applicants were 14% and 5%. And yes, you read that right: in
Pager's experiment, white job applicants with a criminal
history got more callbacks than black applicants without one.
"I expected to find an effect with a criminal record and some
with race," Pager says. "I certainly was not expecting that
result, and it was quite a surprise."

Pager ran a larger version of this experiment in New York
City in 2004, sending teams of young, educated, and
identically credentialed men out into the Big Apple's
sprawling market for entry-level jobs -- once again, with one
applicant posing as an ex-con, the other with a clean record.
(As she did in Milwaukee, Pager had the teams alternate who
posed as the ex-con.) The results? Again Pager's African-
American applicants received fewer callbacks and job offers
than the whites. The disparity was particularly striking for
ex-criminals: a drop off of 9 percentage points for whites,
but 15 percentage points for blacks. "Employers already
reluctant to hire blacks," Pager wrote, "appear particularly
wary of blacks with known criminal histories."

Other research has supported her findings. A 2001-2002 field
experiment by academics from the University of Chicago and
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example,
uncovered a sizeable gap in employer callbacks for job
applicants with white-sounding names (Emily and Greg) versus
black-sounding names (Lakisha and Jamal). They also found
that the benefits of a better resume were 30% greater for
whites than blacks.

These findings proved a powerful antidote to the growing
notion, mostly in conservative circles, that discrimination
was an illusion and racism long eradicated. In The Content of
Our Character (1991), Shelby Steele argued [15] that racial
discrimination no longer held black men or women back from
the jobs they wanted; the problem was in their heads. Dinesh
D'Souza, a first-generation immigrant of Indian descent,
published [16] The End of Racism in 1995, similarly claiming
racial discrimination had little to do with the plight of
black America.

Not so, insist Pager, Darity, Harvard's Bruce Western, and
other academics using real data with an unavoidable message:
racism is alive and well. It leads to endemic, deeply
embedded patterns of discrimination whose harmful impact has
barely changed in 60 years. And it cannot be ignored. As the
old African-American adage puts it, "You've got to work twice
as hard to get half as far as a black person in white

Is There a Solution for Black America?

Tracing black unemployment in America since World War II,
there are two moments when, briefly, the gap between black
and white joblessness narrowed ever so slightly -- in the
1940s and again in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For
example in 1970, unemployment was at 5.8% for blacks and 3.3%
for whites, a sizeable gap but significantly better than what
followed in the Reagan era. Those are moments worth
revisiting, if only to understand what began to go right.

According to University of Chicago professors William Sites
and Virginia Parks, those periods were marked by a flurry of
civil rights and anti-discrimination activity on the federal
level. A series of actions ranging from the creation of the
Fair Employment Practice Committee [17] in 1941 to the
passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which mandated the
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), the Voting Rights
Act of 1965 [18], and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of
1972 [19], write Sites and Parks, had "dramatic impacts on
employment discrimination."

But those gains of the 1970s were soon wiped out. The
thinning of union membership [20] and the dwindling power of
[21] organized labor didn't help either, after decades of
pressure [22] on employers to end discrimination against
workers of color.

Today, in terrible times, with the possibility of social
legislation off the table in Washington, the question
remains: What, if anything, can be done to close the jobless
gap between blacks and whites? When I asked Devah Pager, she
called this the "million-dollar question." This form of
discrimination, she pointed out, is especially difficult to
deal with. As she noted in 2005, many employers who
discriminate don't even realize they're doing so; they're
just going with "gut feelings." "It's not that these
employers have decided that they are not going to hire
workers from a particular group," Pager told me.

What won't work is relying on discrimination watchdogs to
crack down more often. The way federal anti-discrimination
law works, it's up to the person who was discriminated
against to raise an alarm. As Duke's William Darity points
out, that’s a near impossibility for a job applicant who must
convincingly read the mind of a person he or she doesn’t
know. Worse than that, the applicant who wants to lodge
charges of discrimination also has to prove that the
discrimination was intentional, which, as Pager’s experiments
make clear, is no small feat. Under the circumstances, as
Darity told me, perhaps no one should be surprised to
discover that blacks "grossly underreport their exposure to
discrimination and whites grossly overreport it."

Of course, fixing a problem first requires acknowledging it
-- something the nation has yet to do, says the Economic
Policy Institute's Algernon Austin. To put blacks back to
work, lawmakers should invest federal money directly in job
creation, especially for black workers. Other avenues for
putting people back to work, like a payroll tax credit won't
do the trick. "We've spent billions in trying to build jobs
overseas" in war zones [23], Austin told me. "But if we
invested that money here in our cities, we wouldn't have this
racial gap."

But how likely is that at a moment when, in a Washington
gripped by paralysis, any discussion of spending in
Washington begins and ends at how much to cut? The painful
reality of permanent crisis for black workers is here to
stay. That’s how it seems to blacks in D.C., especially those
who live east of the river. In April, another group of
protesters took to the 11th Street Bridge to demand more D.C.
hires, and the following month, the group D.C. Jobs or Else
took their complaints to City Hall. But progress is slow.
"We're being pushed out economically," said [24] William
Alston El, a 63-year-old unemployed resident who grew up in
D.C. "They say it’s not racism, but the name of the game is
they have the money. You can’t live [in] a place if you can’t
pay the rent."


Source URL: http://www.thenation.com/article/161807/what-we-dont-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-jobs
[1] http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175413/tomgram:_andy_kroll,_the_60-year_unemployment_scandal/
[2] https://app.e2ma.net/app/view:Join/signupId:43308/acctId:25612
[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/protesters-seek-jobs-on-11th-street-bridge-project/2011/03/22/ABu9F7EB_story.html
[4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtEMcNO-R9k
[5] http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/dc90.htm
[6] http://www.dcfpi.org/unemployment-in-ward-8-is-high-but-not-worst-in-the-nation-or-even-the-district
[7] http://www.google.com/publicdata/explore?ds=z1ebjpgk2654c1_&amp;met_y=unemployment_rate&amp;idim=state:ST110000&amp;dl=en&amp;hl=en&amp;q=dc unemployment rate
[8] http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t02.htm
[9] http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN0394579356
[10] http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/01/04/nnp/20090.html
[11] http://articles.cnn.com/2009-08-17/living/what.matters.education_1_education-gap-college-enrollment-recovery-act?_s=PM:LIVING
[12] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States#cite_note-prisoners2009-36
[13] http://www.amazon.com/dp/1595581030/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20
[14] http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175215/
[15] http://www.nytimes.com/1990/09/16/books/a-kind-of-race-fatigue.html
[16] http://books.google.com/books?id=QNV3XwST4WIC&amp;printsec=frontcover&amp;dq=the end of racism&amp;hl=en&amp;src=bmrr&amp;ei=nYYHTpGsO861twfMmpjiDQ&amp;sa=X&amp;oi=book_result&amp;ct=book-thumbnail&amp;resnum=1&amp;ved=0CCsQ6wEwAA#v=onepage&amp;q&amp;f=false
[17] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_Employment_Practices_Commission
[18] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/voting_rights_1965.asp
[19] http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/history/35th/thelaw/eeo_1972.html
[20] http://www.nhregister.com/articles/2011/01/23/news/ff2unions012111.txt
[21] http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,918826,00.html
[22] http://www.apwu.org/laborhistory/04-1_philadelphiatransitstrike/04-1_philadelphiatransitstrike.htm
[23] http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175320/tomgram:_engelhardt,_war_to_the_horizon/
[24] http://thefightback.org/2011/05/a-chance-to-11th-street-bridge-d-c-s-economic-divide/


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