The ebbs and flows of our national economy, at least at the broadest macro level, tend to affect most every group similarly. When times are good and jobs are plentiful, unemployment usually goes down across the board. When the economy sours, unemployment goes up in similar fashion.
But these common trends mask considerable disparity in the actual level of distress.
The following graph makes both points very clear.
Over the 35 years covered by this Bureau of Labor Statistics graph, the unemployment rates of Whites, Hispanics and Blacks track each other relatively closely. But like the tracks of a railroad, the individual tracks by race/ethnicity never intersect. Even when unemployment for Whites was at its worst, in 2010, unemployment for Hispanics was nearly 50% higher, and for Blacks, more than 80%. While the absolute magnitude of the gap varies over the period of the study, the fact of a gap does not.
So why is unemployment tied to race?
It’s not simple racism, personal prejudice that leads Whites to hire Whites and to refuse to hire Blacks or Hispanics. Yes, there are some overtly racist employers. But there is no evidence to suggest that the level of such explicit and overt prejudice today is sufficient to explain the persistent disparity in economic fortunes.
A more compelling explanation relies on significant differences in where we live and the prospects we face.
Children who grow up in households where no one holds down a steady job lack the role model who gets up and goes to work that most of us knew as children. They also don’t hear the stories of work, of dealing with supervisors and coworkers (good and bad), and of the coping strategies working adults use to survive in difficult work environments and excel in better ones. Lacking role models and stories, these children, as adults, enter the workforce at a considerable disadvantage.
And these disadvantaged children are disproportionately from racial and ethnic minority communities. Just look at the unemployment data, or the data on poverty.
I vividly remember one young mom, trying to break the cycle of poverty and dependency, who went to work in housekeeping in a hotel. She made a mistake at work (a misunderstanding between her, her co-workers and her supervisor) and was forcefully criticized by her supervisor for her blunder. Devastated, she literally ran away from the work site.
Story over . . . or it would have been.
Fortunately, she was in a public/private partnership program with a job coach, who received her tearful and panicked call. The job coach called the hotel manager, and soon there was a conversation between the supervisor, the once and future employee, the manager, and the job coach. The misunderstanding was acknowledged and clarified. The employee and the supervisor apologized to each other for what followed. The young mom went back to work . . . and continued working successfully.
For most of you who are reading these words, the experience of being chewed out by a supervisor is familiar. We had a parent or parents to come home to or call the first time it happened, a parent or parents who talked us through the events and helped us see the path forward.
We also probably would have stayed on the job site, taken the dressing down and moved on, drawing on some of the inner strength and sense of self-worth imparted to us as children.
Because of to whom we were born, and where we lived, and the schools we attended, and the social relationships we had, we were more or less prepared for this moment when it came, weathered it and sailed on.
But in other homes, disproportionately minority homes, those critical life lessons are missed. Poverty affects more than the food on the table and the clothes on the back. It often impairs the learning of life’s essential lessons. And it wounds the soul. In so doing, poverty reforges the chains of racial inequity.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can work together to clear paths for success for all of our residents.
The starting point is to understand how we got here, not by intent, but nonetheless by design. It is to listen, to question, and to share . . . and to have the courage and determination to say that what has been will not continue for another generation. That we will unravel the pattern of inequity and weave a new social fabric in which all, regardless of race or ethnicity, have the opportunity to make a living and a life.
There’s a real need for this conversation. And the League is creating a real opportunity to have it.
Join us for the REAL (Race, Equity and Leadership) summits April 21 (Lakeland) and April 22 (Fort Lauderdale).