Jobs Crisis Continues To Affect African-Americans More

Black Americans have a far higher unemployment rate than other groups measured by the Labor Department, and the gap is widening. In August it hit 16.3 percent after being 15.6 in July. For whites, the unemployment rate was 8.7 percent in August, up from 8.6 percent. Host Michel Martin speaks with Sam Fulwood, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and William Darity, professor of economics at Duke University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Coming up, we have some interesting new poll numbers measuring attitudes on immigration in New Mexico. Now, New Mexico has the highest percentage of Hispanic residents in the country. And these poll numbers, I think, will be surprising to many people. We'll talk with Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry in just a few minutes.

But first, we just talked about President Obama's efforts to boost jobs and get the economy moving again. The high unemployment numbers cannot be very far from his mind. Overall, unemployment is still relatively high, just under 10 percent. But the figures are still far worse for African-Americans. Unemployment among African-Americans hit 16.3 percent in August. That's up from 15.6 percent the month before.

Now, that compares with 8.7 percent joblessness rate for whites in August. That's up from 8.6 percent in the previous month. We wanted to look again at what's behind this high rate - very high rate of unemployment for African-Americans and what's behind this bigger jump in the last month. So we've called William Darity. He's a professor of African and African-American studies and economics at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.

Also joining us is Sam Fulwood. He's a fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he is analyzing the influence of national politics and domestic policies of communities of color. And I welcome you both and thank you for joining us.

Professor WILLIAM DARITY (African and African-American Studies and Economics, Duke University): It's great to be here.

Mr. SAM FULWOOD (Fellow, Center for American Progress): Thank you for having us on.

MARTIN: So, Professor Darity, we've talked about this issue before. Why is the unemployment rate among African-Americans so much higher than that of the general population?

Prof. DARITY: In my estimation, that's because of the fact that the unemployment rate gap is an index of the degree of discrimination in the economy. So it's the persistence of discrimination that lies at the heart of the differential.

MARTIN: And what's the evidence for that?

Prof. DARITY: I would highlight two pieces of evidence. The first is that the unemployment rate for whites who have never finished high school or high school dropouts in the age range of 18 to 25, is 10 to 12 points lower than the unemployment rate for blacks who have had some college education in the same age range.

I'd also point to research that Devah Pager has developed, a sociologist at Princeton who found that white males with criminal records were more likely to be hired for jobs than black males with no criminal records, everything else being held equal.

MARTIN: So we're obviously going to need to talk about what policies you think should be addressing that, if those policies don't already exist. Or if it's a matter of policy or if it's a matter of enforcing what's already there.

But before we do, Sam Fulwood, let's talk about what your research shows on this point. What have you - why do you think this is?

Mr. FULWOOD: Well, I can't disagree at all. I wish I could with the professor. I think he's completely on the money in terms of it being - and I like the term, an index sort of discrimination. But I think it's a little bit more systemic and ingrained into the economic structure, such that teasing out why these things happen becomes very problematic.

African-Americans tend to be the last hired and they tend to be the first fired in any kind of economic roiling of the economy. And so the structure of how our economy has shaped up doesn't lend itself to narrowing the unemployment rate.

MARTIN: So Professor Darity and Sam Fulwood, I want to ask you about this question too since you're now a fellow at a think tank and presumably you feel comfortable - you're a former colleague, a journalist, so you're not generally in the opinion business, but now you are free to do so.

I do want to ask - what should be done about this? I mean we've heard President Obama say previously that he isn't just the president of black folks and that policies directed at African-Americans are a non-starter. So, Professor Darity, why don't you start? First of all, there have been a number of stimulus plans on the table. He just announced another one this week focusing on infrastructure. Is this enough? Should he be doing more initial - what?

Prof. DARITY: Well, I think that the idea of an infrastructure emphasis is actually a positive. It's a step in the right direction. It's a move towards direct job creation rather than indirect job creation, which is the effect of stimulus packages.

With stimulus packages, you're not really sure how many jobs are actually going to be produced because you're dependent upon the private sector to respond to the influx of funds in such a way that they make new jobs for folks.

Clearly, they haven't been doing that at a sufficient rate. So I think that there is a positive in the step towards creating a program of infrastructure development that creates jobs directly, but I don't think that's sufficient.

I think what we really need is a federal job guarantee for all citizens. If the president is concerned about not having a program that's targeted at African-Americans, then let's take him at his word and provide a universal job guarantee for all American citizens.

MARTIN: Sam, what do you think?

Mr. FULWOOD: I think that that's a great idea, but totally impractical because of the political realities that we're now confronting. I think a federal jobs program is the last thing that the administration is going to propose partly for just rank political reasons. They can't get something like that through.

It has that overture of socialism, which seems to be the buzz word that every Republican uses to attack anything that the administration does. I think the real problem at the moment is sort of getting the overall economy on firm footing before you can start to begin to attack individual sectors, which, you know, like it as you may not, or not, African-American unemployment is perceived in a political context as a special interest.

And before you can start attacking that as it is, you're going to have to have a healthier economy. To talk about federal works programs is just politically unpalatable. Although, logically speaking, it's probably the only thing that will work. It just can't happen right now.

MARTIN: Do either of you sense that there is any special concern about the fact that you have a group where unemployment is so high and so much higher than for other groups? It's worth noting, I mean it's worth noting, for example, that the Hispanic unemployment rate is above - is just around 12 percent, which is just a couple of points. It's still higher than the overall rate, but it's still lower than the African-American rate. I mean, do you have any sense that there's any concern of the levels of this government about that?

Mr. FULWOOD: I don't think there's ever been concern with high unemployment, which is persistent. I mean almost always in the best of times, the African-Americans unemployment rate is almost double what it is for white Americans.

Prof. DARITY: That's exactly right.

Mr. FULWOOD: And so, that persistent disparity should be alarming. And I don't think even in the best of times people are alarmed by that.

MARTIN: And Professor Darity, do you think that's true? And why do you think that is?

Prof. DARITY: I think that particularly at this moment, where so many people are convinced that the society has transcended race by the election of a black president, that the notion that discrimination and racism continue to be operative in all walks of life, but particularly in the employment sector is something that most people don't really believe and they don't take seriously. Unfortunately, the evidence runs counter to that.

MARTIN: Well, why don't you make the case, then, Professor Darity, since you've got the floor at the moment, rank the case for why policymakers should care about this, why they should care about this. I mean, setting specific policy recommendations aside, but why this should be an issue of special concern at a time when many people are not convinced by an argument that race is really a significant factor in American life.

Prof. DARITY: Well, I think that, in general, every American ought to be concerned about disparities that are linked to race and ethnicity. Those types of inequalities are quite pernicious and they have huge implications for how we think about the fairness and equitable nature of our society. And if we have those kinds of disparities, we do not have a fair society.

MARTIN: Sam, what do you think?

Mr. FULWOOD: I'll go one step further. I think he's absolutely right. But I think that the least of us are the canaries in the coal mine for how the whole economy is going. I mean we have seen the collapse of certain signors of the economy over the last decade. African-Americans were complaining about those particular same examples in advance of it. And it only became alarming when it hit Main Street.

And I think that when we are concerned about what's happening to poor people and to African-Americans and the so-called special interests, we really are being concerned about all of Americans. Because you can't - the economy is so interwoven, you can't tease out one part and think that you are going to escape it affecting another.

MARTIN: What's your biggest fear about this now? Professor Darity, I'll give you the last word. We only have 30 seconds. What's your biggest fear about the fact if this situation continues unaddressed?

Prof. DARITY: It becomes a permanent drain on the ability of the economy to work.

MARTIN: Okay. Professor Darity, I gave you the first word, Sam, I'll give you the last word. Sam Fulwood is a fellow at the Center for American Progress where he analyzes the influence of national politics and domestic policies on communities of color. He joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. He's here with me.

William Darity is a professor of African and African-American studies and economics at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. And he was kind enough to join us from Duke University studios in Durham, North Carolina. And I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Prof. DARITY: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. FULSOM: Thank you.

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