Congresswoman Probes Solutions To Black Male Unemployment

Almost one in 10 Americans is out of work, but that number is dramatically higher for black men. Reports and research suggest that a number of factors including racism may play a role in that crisis. Host Michel Martin speaks with Washington D-C Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has formed a task force to help black men in her constituency find suitable jobs. Also joining the conversation is Michael Jones, a law partner at Kirkland and Ellis; and Sulamon Harris. Harris is a black 29-year-old with a Master's Degree in Information Technology and Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering who is unemployed.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Later, we visit with moms who take on the sticky question of taking care of seniors with whom you may have had a difficult relationship before they needed your help. Which is to say, the question of care-giving for someone who may have been abusive or neglectful. That conversation is later.

But, first, we talk about the challenge of taking care of yourself, right now, in this economic downturn, especially if you are unemployed and among the hardest hit groups. Black men are one of those groups. Nationally the unemployment rate is at 9.5 percent. But for black men, the rate is closer to 17 percent. That's compared to 8.6 percent for their white male counterparts.

Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District of Columbia in the U.S. Congress. She created a Commission on Black Men and Boys. Later today her group is holding a forum entitled "Black Men and Unemployment: What Black Men Need to do in the Toughest Job Market in History."

With us also is one of the panelists for the hearing, attorney Michael Jones. He's a partner at Kirkland and Ellis, LLP in Washington, D.C. He joins us here in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Along with Sulamon Harris. He's 28. He has a master's degree in information technology and a bachelor's in electrical engineering. And Mr. Harris tells us that he has been able to find temporary work, but no permanent employment in his field. And I welcome you all. Thank you all so much for speaking for us.

Mr. MICHAEL JONES (Attorney, Kirkland and Ellis, LLP): Thanks for having me.

Representative ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, District of Columbia): Of course.

Mr. SULAMON HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Eleanor Holmes Norton, if I could start with you, what made you decide to have this meeting? And what do you hope to accomplish?

Rep. NORTON: Well, you know, card carrying feminist though I am, I've been concerned for years about the special conditions of black men. Their condition has swept across the African-American community, having doing everything from tearing apart our families, to spilling over into the youngest of children a plethora of problems. These problems range from high incarceration rates - in our jails today, there are seven times as many black men in jail as white men -to issues like education, where far more girls finish school and college than boys. So, part of this is internal. But it feeds into stereotypes and horrific discrimination, so that a small number of black men have a disproportionate effect on who the public believes a black man is. So that Sulamon, one of your guests here, who grew up with essentially no parents, got an engineering degree and an IT degree - and has no record, no prison record - is having a hard time finding work because of the stereotype of who a black man is. Most people, even in an African-American community haven't heard about...

MARTIN: Well, let me hone in on the unemployment piece, because one of the things I wanted to get at here is why do you think there is this issue with a differential unemployment rate? So, why don't we talk to Sulamon first. You do have both a bachelor's and an advanced degree and no criminal record, what response are you getting?

Mr. HARRIS: A lot of companies are saying that I'm not qualified. But on the contrary, I feel as though if I'm given the opportunity to learn what you're looking for, I definitely can meet and exceed what you're looking for.

MARTIN: Well, what is the issue here? Are they saying that your degree is not from a prestigious enough educational institution? Are they saying that you lack work experience? Or are they saying they simply don't have openings right now?

Mr. HARRIS: I lack work experience. Even though I have the book knowledge, I lack the work experience. But how can I get the work experience if no one's willing to give me a chance?

MARTIN: Michael Jones, let's bring you into the conversation. One of the things we've talked about here, is that it isn't just African-American men who lack educational credentials who are struggling in the employment market, right now. We find that unemployment rates for black male college graduates, 25 and older in 2009, were nearly twice that for white male college graduates, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Just to be specific, the unemployment rate for as we discussed, college educated black men, 8.4 percent; and for white male college graduates, 4.4 percent. Now, you're in a position where the people you're hiring are highly educated. I'd like to ask, what's your perspective on this? Why do you think this is happening?

Mr. JONES: You know, I have a when I think about this issue, I think of a very, very good friend of mine who was an associate of the firm, and then he was in house, and then now unemployed for well over a year, perhaps going into two years and is at his wit's end, in terms of what to do. With this downturn in the economy, in the legal profession, you see that African-Americans are disproportionately impacted by the downturn. I think it requires continued diligence, you know, knocking on doors and staying in contact with friends, even when things are looking dire.

In fact, there was this friend of mine, it was his wife who finally called me -because he was feeling somewhat embarrassed about his situation - to do it, and we were really reaching out to him and trying to find a position for him.

MARTIN: But why do you think that is?

Mr. JONES: That is I mean, I guess that's the $60,000 question. You know, I can't give a definitive answer. I think there probably are a range of reasons. What I see is, both in terms of the hiring and business development, so much of it is networking and connections. And I think that African-Americans have less connected friends than in the larger society. You can just sort of look at the math. The folks who are in-house counsel in position to make decisions are less likely to be African-Americans - though that's changing.

MARTIN: Congresswoman, what do you think about all this? I mean we were talking about let's talk about the range of jobs that people might want to have from people with the range of educational backgrounds that people might present in the labor force - people who have less education and people who have more.

What we're seeing with African-American men, is that all across the spectrum, there's this big gap. And, in fact, the deferential is even greater for the most educated African-American men. The disparity with their white male peers in unemployment is even greater, even though the numbers are lower. I'd like to ask, what's your perspective on this?

Rep. NORTON: Let's look at what the data shows about black men, period. With control studies, the data shows that a black man has no better chance of getting a job than a white man just out of prison. Now, that's discrimination. The black man, of course, I'm speaking of, has no record. That has to do with a stereotype. For example, when the CDs and the movies show an image of black men a black man that nobody could embrace, except a thug - and that's the only image you, sitting in Michael's law firm has seen, that may come to mind even when a polished young black man comes in the door.

But when we consider the reasons, we have to also go to reasons that have nothing to do with discrimination. We have to go to incarceration. We have to go to education. We're in such a competitive world today, that the two young men that you have here with you in the studio, are not competing, as it were, with their peers in the District of Columbia, or even in the United States of America, they're competing globally. So that to the extent that black boys don't finish high school, they are sealing themselves off from any opportunity.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about black men and unemployment. The unemployment rate for black men remains among the highest of all groups in this downturn. We're with D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who's holding a forum on this issue later today. Attorney Michael Jones, he's a partner in a major Washington, D.C. law firm. And Sulamon Harris, who's looking for work in his field.

So, talking about there are larger factors and there are factors within people's sort of personal behavior and their credentials that also come into play, what do you recommend?

Rep. NORTON: Particularly since discrimination is fed by the stereotypes, and you can't break through the stereotypes until you do something about the education and the incarceration. From the public policy point of view, got to target young black men at a very early age before they get siphoned off into the streets.

Look, the street economy looks like he can get you a job tomorrow. The street economy can be everything from hustling to absolutely illegal activity. If a black man presenting himself has a problem, a black man with a record has piled on, in terms of his own problems. So how do you keep a kid from that? You can't do it. You know, he gets to be in 11th and 12th grade and he's already a member of the gang, already out here hustling.

You have got to get to youngsters who see their futures different from the hustlers in the street. And somehow, look at peers who go on to college and do see a future.

MARTIN: Well, let's ask Sulamon, how did you maintain your focus through your educational experience? How did you stay motivated?

Mr. HARRIS: Stay motivated by the example that I saw in front of me. I was fortunate enough to attend a recreation center in southeast D.C. And at that youth center we had volunteers from different backgrounds - doctors, lawyers, servicemen, et cetera.

MARTIN: So you got to meet a lot of men who were about something, who were doing stuff?

Mr. HARRIS: Yes.

MARTIN: Okay. Now, what is your goal? What are you looking for? What would you like to be doing?

Mr. HARRIS: Professionally, I would like to be a manager in the IT sector so that I can give more African-Americans a chance. I'm willing to take that chance on them.

MARTIN: Can I ask you this - and I apologize if this is an uncomfortable question, but, you know, you've sacrificed a lot. You've done a lot, and at the moment, your dream has yet to be fulfilled of working in your field. Okay?

Mr. HARRIS: Yes.

MARTIN: How do you feel?

Mr. HARRIS: I have my good days and my bad days. Some days I am confused, not knowing why I'm not being presented with these opportunities. But at the same time, I take the situation and use it for an advantage. I don't wait for an opportunity. I go out and get an opportunity. I've currently been volunteering at the Children of Mine Center and other non-profit organizations, lending my IT skills that I have acquired on my own and building up my own knowledge steadily while I'm waiting for an opportunity.

MARTIN: How do you keep from getting discouraged?

Mr. HARRIS: A big part of that is my faith. I believe in God and I believe that everything that I'm going through is for a reason. If not for me, for me to help someone else.

MARTIN: Can I ask you this, though: Do any of the fellows who didn't take the course that you took ever rag on you about it and say, you, you know, went to class and you don't have this and that, but I have this and that because I am out here on the corner? Even if we know that that story doesn't end well, generally, do you ever confront that in your day to day?

Mr. HARRIS: I definitely have experienced that through all the phases of my life, from elementary school to high school to college. And I think a big part of it is association, like the people who are saying that aren't really your friends, anyway. So for a person that's not my friend, that has not benefitted me in any way, I really - don't matter what they say. And I associate with people that's likeminded as myself that can I can benefit from.

MARTIN: Michael Jones, can I ask you about you said that you actually have the legal business is not immune from the economic downturn, obviously, if companies are, you know, shedding employees and other things(ph), and they're scaling back their work. Often, the market for legal work is also scaled back. But I did want to ask if peers that you have who also are in this situation that Sulamon is in, where they're not getting the employment opportunities that they would like to have, how do they see it? What do they think is going on, and how do they deal with it?

Mr. JONES: I think it probably has a harder psychological impact. In fact, I was just today looking at, you know, these professional network things that are online. I got a note that one of my friends had updated her profile. She's an Ivy League undergrad in law school, was in house for a long time with a drug company, and was laid off, like, a year and a half ago. And she looked and she looked, and she finally has now started a consulting firm.

But the last time I talked with her, you know, she was pretty dispirited. But what I have encouraged, you know, people to do is to, you know, really reach out to folks even that you haven't talked to in a very, very long time. In this downturn, you know, there are a lot of resumes, you know, coming in. It is better to have somebody on the inside, you know, who knows you and is looking out for your resume, and that I think, you know, as I said earlier, just at a personal level, I think it's important to stay grounded, you know, in your faith and friends and family.

MARTIN: Congresswoman, how do you get people to be concerned about discrimination at a time when nearly one out of ten Americans overall is unemployed? How do you get people to care about something like that?

Rep. NORTON: The first thing we got to do is to pull them out from under the files so that somebody looks at them. And the second thing is to understand the effect that their unemployment has on the overall black community. When I say 70 percent of our children are born to single women, I mean that the next generation is more likely to be like these unemployed black men than like their fathers and grandfathers, who are disproportionately - we(ph) black men - in manufacturing, construction jobs, which do not require much education.

MARTIN: Okay, but everyone is not part of this community. Everyone who's not African-American, why should they be concerned about this phenomenon?

Rep. NORTON: Well, you know, that's, you know, it's the only question that could be asked in an America that has forgotten that we are one community. When we say that the Japanese and the Chinese are eating our lunch, do we know who we're talking about? The Japanese and the Chinese who are soaring ahead in education, one of the reasons we look so bad in education is that disproportionately, we have large numbers of minority people in this country who are not reaping the benefits of education or participating in education.

So that if you need you want to be competitive in this world, you're not going to be competitive with white people alone in a country that is fast becoming a majority/minority country. So if you care anymore if you care about your country, you better begin to hear about these people of color, because they are dominating some states already, and will shortly, literally in a few decades, be the majority of Americans.

MARTIN: Before we let you all go, I was hoping that you might have some word of encouragement for Sulamon. Either of you, any particular advice for him, since he's still on that journey and has already sort of done the first thing that you're suggesting that people need to do, which is to be attentive to their education. He's done that part. But do you have any other encouragement for him? Michael Jones?

Mr. JONES: Yeah. I would encourage him to keep doing what he's doing. I think given the numbers out there, it is increasingly difficult to just be an anonymous applicant. You know, you need to take the extra step.

MARTIN: And congresswoman, a final thought from you. I know that part of the reason you're holding this forum is to illicit ideas for people and to sort of exchange ideas about what is possible and can be done. But in advance of that, do you have any words of advice? Any word of wisdom? Particularly for somebody like Sulamon.

Rep. NORTON: Well, for Sulamon, as I would say for other young black men, build on your strengths. Sulamon cannot possibly be really discouraged. What he's done is to overcome obstacle after obstacle. When you've overcome obstacle after obstacle, he can't possibly be discouraged. I believe that when you've gotten as much education and overcome as much as Sulamon has, if you keep plugging away, you can't possibly fail to succeed. And anybody out there looking for a really smart engineer, I think you ought to be in touch with Michel and she'll tell you how to get in touch with Sulamon.

MARTIN: Okay. Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District of Columbia in the U.S. Congress. Her Commission on Black Men and Boys is holding a hearing today on black males and employment. Also with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, Michael Jones. He's a partner at Kirkland and Ellis, LLP. And Sulamon Harris. He's looking for work. He holds a master's degree in information systems and a bachelor's in electrical engineering. And they were all here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. JONES: Thanks for having us.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you.

Rep. NORTON: Of course.

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