Do Recent Unemployment Numbers Accurately Represent Minorities?

The National unemployment rate dropped unexpectedly in January from 10 percent to 9.7 percent, the lowest numbers since August. But some experts say the dip could be misleading because the figures only account for those actively looking for jobs, not for those who have halted their employment search. Host Michel Martin talks with Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute of Latino Policy, and Joel Dreyfuss, editor of the online magazine theRoot.com about how these numbers are likely more skewed for minorities.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Toyota recalls the 2010 model of the Prius. We'll hear from consumer advocate and safety maven Joan Claybrook about what this means. That's a little later in the program.

But first, we want to talk about jobs. The national jobless rate has dropped under 10 percent according to the latest government report issued last week.

Despite that news, the country's political leadership seems to be acknowledging that the jobless rate remains frustratingly high. President Obama met with leaders from both political parties at the White House today saying he hopes to get some momentum behind some measures that might jumpstart more job creation.

But the one thing that should be clear to everybody is that the jobless rate for African-Americans and Latinos is disproportionately high. According to the last unemployment report, unemployment among blacks is 16.5 percent, for Latinos it's 12.6 percent. And on the numbers, Latinos make up 30 percent of the unemployed. So the question is why is that? And should there be special attention to these groups, given that these groups are suffering disproportionately?

We wanted to talk about more about this, so we've called Joel Dreyfuss. He's managing editor of theRoot.com. That's an online publication that addresses matters of special interest to African-Americans. Also joining us, Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. He's with us from our New York bureau. They've both written about this issue recently. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

MARTIN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Nice to be with you.

MARTIN: Joel, you recently wrote an op-ed on theRoot.com about this very issue, which you titled "Black Unemployment Is Not News." You wrote, Friday's announcement that unemployment in the U.S. had dropped to 9.7 percent was welcome even if the gains turn out to be fragile or illusory. But most of the early news stories left out an even bigger number: black unemployment at 16.5 percent, black male unemployment a whopping 17.6 percent. It may seem silly to ask, but, you know, you're pointing out - and, Angelo, I have to mention, you wrote essentially the same piece about the figures affecting the Latino community. So, Joel, the question I'm asking you is did you think there would be more attention to this fact?

MARTIN: Yeah, I mean, you know, it's always a reminder of what has become for granted in America. You know, if you have almost one out of five men in certain communities that are out of work - and that's double the rate for white men or more than double the rate - you would think that would make news. And the fact that in many of the early stories that were done, there was not even mention of the black unemployment rate. It just struck me as a reminder of how ordinary this has become and so accepted in a way.

So, you know, journalism says - standard journalism says the most important information goes at the top of the story and the least important at the bottom. And in this case, the black unemployment figures and Hispanic unemployment figures were either at the bottom or not there at all.

MARTIN: Angelo, you had the same experience. Tell me about it. You wrote a similar piece focusing on the Latino unemployment, focusing that just on the numbers, Latinos are probably the - they don't have the highest unemployment rate. But in terms of the overall number, they probably make up the largest share of the jobless. I should also mention that teenagers actually have the highest unemployment rate. Did you think there would be more of a reaction?

MARTIN: Well, if you look at what's been happening in the last number of years, attempts to delegitimize race talk and to talk about a, you know, post-racial society and all this kind of stuff, you kind of notice that that apparently has been successful because it's essentially created a situation where it's kind of almost, like, wiped out blacks and Latinos from the scene in terms of talking about these kinds of issues when, as Joel said, you know, you have these unbelievable numbers disproportionately affecting a community like ours, something that should call attention to policymakers and for the general public.

I mean, you know, the Latino unemployment rate, for example, last year was already 10 percent. So for me, as a Latino, to be listening to people freaking out this year that, you know, it went up to 10 percent when it was affecting my community at that level a year earlier nobody said anything. It kind of says a lot about where we're at in this society today.

MARTIN: Joel, you wrote that the willingness to focus on the most blighted segment of America is directly proportional to how much Americans really believe that black Americans are somehow to blame for their own high unemployment. Why do you say that?

MARTIN: Well, I think that there's no doubt that there's an undercurrent in these - in this country of rage and anger in, I think, in a certain segment of the community. I think that's part of the Tea Party people. It's part of anti-affirmative action. And even on our own Web site which is, you know, largely an African-American audience, we get comments by, I think, whites who want to vent their rage. And so often some of these comments are, you know, it's your fault. You guys don't go to school, you don't get educated. You don't want to work. You're lazy. And it may be a minority who think that or at least are willing to say that out loud, but I think there's an undercurrent in this country. There's always been an undercurrent in this country that if you're poor, it's your fault.

MARTIN: You know, there's an argument, though, in terms of how best to address these issues politically. And, you know, there's sort of a saying in politics, if you want to talk about the poor, talk about the middle class. If you want to talk about the rich, talk about the middle class.

I mean, their argument is that, politically, it just doesn't make sense to focus on specific groups, especially specific groups about which, you know, you can debate this or not that some, you know, other people are ambivalent, you know, for whatever reason. That it's just smarter politics to focus on the whole rather than the specific because you can get more things done. So Angelo, I'll address that question to you first.

MARTIN: Well, all I know is...

MARTIN: Could that be true?

MARTIN: Well, I think if you become invisible, then people don't have to address the problem, and if you can render the issue of race as something that we shouldn't be talking about, then basically - you're basically saying that it's not a problem, that the structural kind of things behind the kind of inequalities you have in society really shouldn't be discussed. It's not really - we should just leave it at the individual level and that is just simply the issue of individual responsibility.

So, that when you're talking about social policy, economic policy, then you wind up not addressing the issues where they should be addressed. You wind up ignoring them. So I think that's not good for the society in general. And when, you know, you have people like the president pulling his punches strategically, and not talking about these kinds of issues, from exactly the position that you laid out, I think it just creates a problem. We need to start developing strategies to making sure that communities like ours are not ignored.

MARTIN: Joel, before you answer, I just want to mention that if you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy and Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of theRoot.com.

We're talking about the latest unemployment figures and we're talking about the fact that even though the national unemployment rate seems to have dipped below 10 percent, the rate for blacks and Latinos is disproportionately high. And we're addressing the question of whether there should be more national discussion about the impact on these specific groups.

Joel, there's a story in the New York Times today that talks about President Obama's sort of nuanced approach to talking about race. Professor Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who is close to Mr. Obama has said that I think there's a carefulness - not a reluctance - but a carefulness to talk about race.

And one of the examples that people cite is that when President Obama has talked about race directly, as in the case of Harvard history professor Henry Louis Gates, who was arrested in his own home after coming back from a trip and had difficulty getting into the house because his door was stuck. When he addressed this issue squarely, it did not go well with some quarters. That there was a lot of negative pushback from a number of quarters.

MARTIN: Right.

MARTIN: So, Joel, what about it?

MARTIN: Well, for full disclosure, I should first say that Professor Gates is the editor-in-chief of The Root. But my observation - and I wasn't with the publication at that time - was that somehow President Obama's defense of Professor Gates was finally, for some people, proof that President Obama was really black. You know, if you looked at some of the comments, and there was some disappointment in those comments. It was as if aha, he's, you know, they're sticking together. And I think that's one of the issues Obama has to face.

I think ironically if he were white, he would be much freer to address these issues and tackle specific problems with the black community. Remember that it was Nixon who started supporting black entrepreneurship, for example. You know, I can't imagine Obama now creating a program just to support black entrepreneurship, it wouldn't happen.

MARTIN: So - but that begs the question then, Joel, do you think that he should be more outspoken on the disproportionate impact of unemployment or should be focusing legislative efforts that specifically target these communities? If you are saying that the politics...

MARTIN: Well, I think...

MARTIN: ...wouldn't be that effective?

MARTIN: I think that there are long-term issues in the black community. I think the administration is making a good effort to address them, you know, better schools, better education, work habits. The sad thing about it is that unemployment has a very long-term impact.

If kids come out of school and never have a job, it's much harder to get a job. So, there are the long-term issues. I think the way to do the short-term issues is to target particular demographics, you know, address unemployment, address high unemployment in certain communities, black or white.

You know, there are areas of the country where unemployment for black, Hispanics and whites is higher. And can you target certain things, and say we're going to do special programs in the inner cities with a certain statistical base that we feel is, you know, I think those are fairer. I think - and those are seen as more fair by people. I think the great fear of the majority is that, you know, they're going to be doing special favors for African-Americans or special favors for Hispanics. And that has a real negative connotation to, you know, a lot of Americans.

MARTIN: Angelo, what do you think President Obama should do, or the political leadership of the country in general?

MARTIN: Well, I think, as you said, I think - as Professor Ogletree said, I think he has to basically begin a more nuanced discussion about race and it's effects on American society. And not simply strategically, you know, ignore it because, see, one thing is it obviously affects policies at the federal level. But I think what he says also affects policies at the state and local level and in the private sector.

So, that if we don't have him as a spokesperson talking about these issues in a very direct way, in a nuanced way, not simply something that will fall into the hands of people who want to see this as some sort of special interest or, you know, black male or whatever you want to call it, we're doomed.

I mean, this is a real serious problem for American society because the projections are right that by, in the near future, black, Latinos and Asians are going to be the majority of the population in this country, and certainly the majority of the working force. So, it's a kind of issue you can't away from. The question is how do you approach it? And quite frankly, the way the administration has dealt with it at this point is really lacking and really is not showing the kind of leadership that we need to see.

I mean, you know, when you talk about the professor, the Harvard professor, you know, I think about, you know, beer - was it beer summit? And things like that. I mean, that's, you know, it was a really clumsy way of dealing with the issue. So, I think there's a lot of room for improvement. The State of the Union address, I mean, he mentioned - the word inner-city was mentioned once. It didn't talk to our communities in any way. And I think, you know, a lot of us have get frustrated with policies that are kind of generalized. But, you know, they never somehow reach our community.

MARTIN: All right. Angelo Falcon is president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of theRoot.com, an online publication. And he was kind enough to join us from his office in Washington, D.C. Gentlemen, I thank you both.

MARTIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thanks.

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