Black Men Hit Especially Hard By Unemployment

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Despite having college degrees, unemployment is hitting African-American men at higher rates than others. Host Michel Martin speaks with New York Times writer, Michael Luo, who interviewed college educated black men around the country about the difficulties they face when looking for jobs. Also joining the conversation is Johnny R. Williams who is featured in the article, and Harry Holzer, a Public Policy Professor at Georgetown University, and an expert on employment problems faced by minority men.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Along with Afghanistan, the other big news out of Washington this week is the White House Job Summit, scheduled for today.

It's no secret that the terrible employment picture is causing distress for millions of Americans and heartburn for their political leaders. So the White House has scheduled a conference with business executives and others to brainstorm ways to create more jobs.

Now, a recession is tough on everybody, but one aspect of this recession has particular irony. With a heavily accomplished black man in the White House, the unemployment rate for black men with college degrees is still nearly twice that of white men with the same level of education.

We wanted to know more about this, so we called Michael Luo. He is a national correspondent for the New York Times who recently wrote an article about this topic, and he interviewed college-educated black men from around the country who are having trouble finding employed.

One of the men he interviewed, Johnny R. Williams, is with us, also. They are both joining us from our New York bureau. Also with us from here in Washington is Harry Holzer. He is a public policy professor at Georgetown University who has conducted extensive research on employment issues faced by minority men. Gentlemen, thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MICHAEL LUO (National Correspondent, New York Times): Hello. Good to be here.

Mr. JOHNNY R. WILLIAMS: It's good to be here.

Mr. HARRY HOLZER (Public Policy Professor, Georgetown University): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So Johnny, let me start with you. You have an MBA from the University of Chicago, extensive work history. How long have you been looking for a job, and what have you been finding?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I had secured a position prior to graduation in 2008, and that offer was rescinded, you know, shortly before I graduated - so, say, going on 18 months now.

MARTIN: And why was the offer rescinded? Was it because the company you had been hired with was going through hard times?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. That was the reference that the cited, and the whole system kind of fell apart there. And the same happened to a lot of my peers, as well, working for a lot of major banks and major corporations, and kind of came in phases over the last year and a half. A lot of people were laid off.

MARTIN: What has been your reaction, though, when you've gone out to look for work? Have you had reason to believe that race is a factor?

Mr. WILLIAMS: In most cases, I would say no, but there are some rare and far-and-between cases where, when you really think through it, it is a question that stays. You know, what was the real deciding factor there? And it's never blatant, but it's a constant threat, I think, in some instances.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example of why you think that.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Sometimes, people kind of second-guess your credentials or, you know, did you really go to school there? Or they'll say they want more validation of your education. But sometimes, the look on the face of the person is almost in a state of disbelief.

MARTIN: And you're saying that they're shocked that you're black when you show up for the interview? They just seem to be surprised?

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's only happened very few times, but in some instances where you're maybe dealing with a smaller, elite group and they're very comfortable with the way they - how things are, sometimes I do get the sense that they are not completely comfortable with the interview.

MARTIN: Hm. Michael Luo, you, as I mentioned, wrote a piece about this for the New York Times. And if people haven't read it, I'll have a link on our Web site so that people can read the piece in its entirety. But how did you - how did you come upon this story? I have to say, it's gotten a lot of attention from people who follow these issues because as we know, one of the narratives of recent years has been the way to close the employment gap, the racial employment gap, has been to close the education gap.

And now here, you find - and the statistics bear out - that even with comparable education, African-American men are still unemployed at larger numbers. So how did you get on to this story to begin with, if you don't mind my asking, and secondly, what were the experiences of some of the other people whom you interviewed?

Mr. LUO: Yeah, so I've been writing for the past year about the recession and the human side of it, and I was looking at the black unemployment rate compared to the white unemployment rate by educational category, and in the past, and you would think this would be true, the higher you went on the educational scale, the disparity in terms of the ratio of one to the other was less. But for some reason, in the first 10 months of 2009 the disparity was actually greater for - if you had a college degree compared to if you didn't. And I was really surprised and stunned that in the first 10 months of 2009 it's 91 percent higher, the black unemployment rate than the white unemployment rate, for those with college degrees.

And for those with high school diplomas, for example, its only 60 percent higher, and then I think with less than high school it's like 70 percent or something. So it's a pretty sizeable difference and I was just really surprised and I thought it was really a contrast to - here we are in 2009, the inauguration year of, you know, the first African-American president and this kind of shift in path has happened and I was interested in why that was.

MARTIN: And what about for women, Michael?

Mr. LUO: So there is a disparity with women. And yeah, I don't want to leave that out. And I did interview women in my story. But the disparity is most pronounced among men.

MARTIN: But you're right. I'm looking at the statistics now and the disparity is greatest for black men. So Harry Holzer, you're in the why business. Why? And I just want to mention, your particular area of interest, you've spent a lot of time researching less-educated workers and the circumstances that less-educated workers find themselves in. But overall, you've spent a lot of time also thinking about the employment picture for minority men. Why is this? Why does this disparity exist?

Mr. HOLZER: Well, first of all, it's probably true at almost all levels of the economy. During good times, black unemployment rates are almost twice as high as they are for whites and that's also true during bad times, almost twice as high and consistent with the numbers that Michael quoted. And I think there's a lot of different answers for that question of why. I think first of all, you know, discrimination is still out there and stereotypes about people's abilities and there's lots of studies that economists and sociologists have done where they send out matched pairs of black and white job applicants with identical credentials on paper. And in every one of those studies, white job applicants get more callbacks from the employers or more job offers than black applicants even with equivalent credentials. So that suggests there still is -discrimination is still out there. And it's true at all...

MARTIN: Can you identify why that is though? What is the relevant factor there in the why white applicants are getting more callbacks because I know you've also researched the question of employer preferences.

Mr. HOLZER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is there any way to get at that?

Mr. HOLZER: I think frankly, you know, there are no doubt some cases where if the manager is white, he or she is going to prefer their own. Quite frankly, if the manager is black or Hispanic, they might also prefer there own, but there's a lot more managers out there who are whites who are doing the hiring.

But there's a couple other things. You know, we do know that there is even at the similar levels of education, there is an achievement gap. We know that on average minorities, blacks, even lower income whites have lower grades, lower test scores even at the same level of education. That's a reality. That does affect some job performance but it also feeds people's perceptions.

And I think on average, a lot of managers will look at an average black candidate and think yeah, but the white candidate coming from that same school really might be stronger. And quite frankly, you know, a little bit of that is real, some of it is stereotype. I think the white perception of affirmative action probably reinforces that stereotype. There's a view held, and I think it's unfair to a lot of black applicants, but there's this view that well, absent of affirmative action some of these young folks wouldn't have gotten in anyway and they're really not quite up to speed to the same level that whites are. And whether that's true or not, and I think the evidence suggests in many cases it's not true, but the perception is there and if that perception's there it will feed the behavior of the white employers.

MARTIN: How do you know that? Is there any research to support that?

Mr. HOLZER: There's a large body of research on the grades and test scores of whites and blacks and there's a very large gap in general. But even at the same institution there are big gaps. Especially when you get to the better schools, there's often a pretty big gap in average GPA, average test scores. Now, again, that doesn't mean that the black applicants are less qualified. A, first of all, it's not true in every single case. So for any individual black candidate it may well not be true, number one. Number two, even if it is true, it may not affect their performance in any given job. It may not imply that they are less qualified. But again, at this point, it's a generality and a generality that I think affects perceptions of a lot of folks in the white community and if it affects their perceptions they're going to act on it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about why it is that the unemployment rate for college-educated African-American men is still almost twice that of similarly educated whites. And I'm speaking with Michael Luo. He's a national correspondent for The New York Times who recently wrote a piece about this. Johnny R. Williams who is profiled in the piece, and Harry Holzer who's a Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University. We were talking about the role of stereotypes and what role that may play in hiring decisions.

Johnny, you got a sense that when you had interviews with some people that they kind of discount your credentials, is that right? You get a sense that number one, that people are surprised that with your resume that you are African-American, and number two, you said that you sometimes feel there's kind of a probing that goes on to see whether you really merit your credentials. Could you talk more about that?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. At some of these places, given that only someone like a practitioner on his side or his or her side that's been in the industry maybe 10 years, you know, would know something like that. So that's some of the questions I've gotten. And it's almost like they - that look on their face, well they know you don't know the answer to that but they just want to just, you know, give you a curve ball just to, you know, just to give you some grief.

MARTIN: But how do you know that that's not something they would ask any applicant just to see how you respond to pressure?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, absolutely. I believe...

MARTIN: It's like boot camp. The drill sergeant's yelling at everybody.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Exactly. And it happens. I think there are tough questions and I don't think that's indicative of, you know, people's perceptions. But sometimes when people ask about my background or where I went to undergraduate, different experiences they talk about, and even when I've - in the work place, you know, they want to ask me the really odd questions about my background that almost to say as if they're puzzled as if why am I working alongside them, so to speak.

MARTIN: Michael, you in your piece, one of the interesting points that you make in the piece is that many of the people you interviewed, although they had experiences like Johnny's, wrestled with, as you put it, pulling the race card. That they were kind of hesitant to identify race as a factor in what was happening to them even though they suspected it was a factor. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

Mr. LUO: Yeah. I mean the people I talked to, I mean they're like Johnny. I mean they have accomplished resumes. A lot of them went to good schools. And so really, there was a sort of grappling inside them of is something to do with race going on here? And plus, there is the stigma - and I think even Johnny right now and when he's talking about it, there is that stigma that he's wrestling with. And I mean every job seeker is going to go into a job interview and if he doesn't get it or if he sends his resume and he doesn't get a callback he's going to ask well, what did I do wrong?

I mean some people said to me literally, the biggest thing that they think about going into an interview is not like, you know, how am I going to answer this question or how am I going to respond to that, it's this notion of race.

MARTIN: So Johnny, may I ask this question? You've already taken some steps to address this concern. You've scrubbed your resume as it were. You've de-racialized it...


MARTIN: the degree that you can, eliminating any references which might immediately flag your demographic profile. What else are you trying to do?

Mr. WILLIAMS: As it pertains to race?

MARTIN: To getting a job?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, natural things. You know, networking. You know, trying to set up more informal meetings and, you know, I'm constantly interviewing, still trying to get more interviews etcetera, etcetera.

MARTIN: Did you hesitate to do this interview?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I did. To be very honest, I was a little apprehensive, you know, about doing this. You know, I didn't want to be cast as just doing the Jesse Jackson: This is about race and race, race, race, etcetera, etcetera. I didn't want to be portrayed as that at all. You know, because I knew exactly where that was going to get me - on the blacklist very quickly, literally.

MARTIN: Well, how are you feeling now? How are your spirits, if you don't mind my asking?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I'm optimistic. And, you know, I've been at this a while and I didn't try to call out any particular person. I'm just speaking about my experiences and they're not groundless. They're very very factual, as Mike has said and a lot of the comments and the feedback they've gotten, so this is not an off-base argument. I hope that somehow I can strike the conscious in some people and I think I have. Some of the feedback that we've gotten about the article that this does go on and maybe you should address it.

MARTIN: Harry Holzer, I want to hear a final thought from you. You've also been at this a while. You've been reporting on and researching these disparities. What's the answer?

Mr. HOLZER: Well, as you indicated at the outset, and I think we all agree to this, education remains very important. And it's not just how many years of education you get, and it's not just whether you complete a college degree. Those other dimensions of quality matter.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, but Johnny's got an MBA from the University of Chicago...

Mr. HOLZER: No. No. I understand that.

MARTIN: ...which is a highly competitive´┐Ż

Mr. HOLZER: I understand that.

MARTIN: And he's got some extensive work history and...

Mr. HOLZER: No, I think it's a couple things. Even within the ranks of college graduates, even within the ranks of MBA there are disparities in equality and we need to work to eliminate them and that means at all different stages, trying to improve the quality of education we offer people as much as possible so that everybody's - when you get admitted to the University of Chicago MBA program there is no gap in credentials and in performance. So I think we still have to strive as a society towards that. To the extent that some of this is still about discrimination and there's no doubt that it is, so you know, we need to make sure that...

MARTIN: You mean there is no doubt your mind. Clearly there's a doubt in other people's mind.

Mr. HOLZER: In my mind and I think anyone who's looked honestly at the research comes to that conclusion. How much it matters and how much it explains of the overall gap, people can still argue about. But to the extent that there's still a problem, there's two things. Number one, you know, EEO remains very important, by which I mean enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, the laws that make discrimination illegal in hiring, and EEO can be more strongly, more weakly. So that's got to remain a top priority. But I think there's another issue. I think a lot of this discrimination is often about lack of information.

It may not necessarily be that all these white managers are racists, probably many of them are not. But at some level, as I said, a little more comfort with their own or their perceptions might be a little skewed by this notion of the average. So any applicant walks in - and so much of this is so subjective about exactly how good is this person. You see their credentials. You see their degrees. You look at a few letters of reference that always kind of sound the same at some level. Any evidence that someone can provide about their own - not only their on qualifications, but their performance on past jobs, some really strong references from previous employers that say this guy was terrific, that will not be as much clouded or cast in doubt as someone's degree or other things about their performance. And so I think it's both about enforcing antidiscrimination law but trying to provide that information whenever the hiring and promotion decisions come up.

MARTIN: And I have one final question and it is also subjective. What do you think is the Obama effect in all this? Because when I've reported on this issue in the past, and I've had employers in a position to speak freely for whatever reason, some of them will say well, you know - and they will invoke stereotypes - well, you know, black guys have an attitude, you know, that kind of thing. Or there are assumptions about behavior or competence which they don't even give an applicant a chance to disprove. Do you think that Obama as president addresses these in any way? In fact, Michael's reporting suggests that some feel that with Obama in the White House, they don't feel they have to do anything. Employers don't have any obligation at all. It's all taken care of and others feel differently and I just wondered if you had an opinion about that.

Mr. HOLZER: You know, I think it'll be very interesting five or 10 years down the road, statistically we can see if there's an Obama effect. My guess, based on what I've seen is if that exists it will be quite small. I think Barack Obama relieved a lot of doubts about his abilities. People saw a lot of him for a two-year period during the presidential elections. They saw him in the debates with John McCain. And you could get a lot of information about who Barack Obama is an individual that made people more and more comfortable with him. That doesn't necessarily carry over, you know. So now people have in their mind Barack Obama is one data point. Doesn't necessarily carry over to all the other data points that where the broader stereotype might still - now if there are five or 10 or 20 of those data points that people see, maybe it starts to break that down more systematically. But I'm a little skeptical at this point that it will have a big effect on its own.

MARTIN: Harry Holzer is a professor of public policy at Georgetown University. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Michael Luo is a national correspondent with The New York Times. If you want to read the piece that we've been talking about, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to, click on programs and then on TELL ME MORE.

Johnny R. Williams is a financial professional. We talked about some of his credentials and he's still looking for work. And he and Michael Luo both joined us from New York.

Gentleman, thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LUO: Thank you very much.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

Mr. HOLZER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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