New Study Finds Labor Market Discrimination Against Black Men

April 25, 2011

Much attention of late has been paid to the economic situation of black Americans — men especially. The recession has hit them harder than any other racial/ethnic group. And they weren’t doing so great before.

In April 2009, the Center on American Progress took a hard look at how black men were “weathering the storm.” Not well.

At the time, four out of every five jobs lost had been held by black men. The unemployment rate for them was more than twice the rate for white men — 15.4%. As of the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report, it’s now 16.8%, as compared to 7.7% for white men.*

Yet, as CAP says, “black men have long faced limited employment prospects and disproportionately high unemployment rates.”

Income is a telling indicator here. An American Prospect article on the black/white wage gap tells us that, in 2006, when the economy was booming, black men with full-time, year-round jobs earned, on average, 72% of what white men working comparable hours earned.

It’s customary to attribute the black/white employment and wage gaps to a combination of factors.

Need I say that disparate levels of education loom large?

Numbers experts comment on the impacts of the shift in our economy from manufacturing to other sectors what require more than a high school diploma — health care, professional and business services, government, etc.

In the 2007/8 school year, only 47% of black male students got so far as high school graduation. According to a recent analysis by Inside Higher Ed, only 40.5% of those who enrolled in a four-year college or university graduate within six years.

Also high on the explanations list is the extraordinary rate at which black men are imprisoned. We’re told that they constitute 48% of all inmates. And criminal record is, of course, a huge barrier to employment — apparently even greater for blacks than whites.

And then there’s the notion, backed by some research, that black men are often disadvantaged by the view that they lack “soft skills” — an amorphous, but critical set of qualifications that readily admit of covert race discrimination.

A recent brief issued by the Economic Policy Institute puts some of these explanations to the test — and poses another theory.

Basically, the authors looked at the ratio of black men to white men in all but one of the 469 occupations used in the annual American Community Survey. They found that:

  • 87% of the occupations could be classified as racially segregated, even when level of education is accounted for.
  • Occupations in which black men were over-represented paid, on average, $13,328 per year less than the occupations in which white men were over-represented.
  • Every $10,000 increase in the average annual wage of an occupation was correlated with a 7% decrease in black male representation.

Then the authors tested a couple of common explanations for such occupational segregation.

What about the purported lack of soft skills, for example? Totally at odds with the data.

Black men are either well-represented, i.e., as level of education would predict, or over-represented in service industries, where soft skills are a high priority and wages relatively low. They’re under-represented in construction, extraction and manufacturing industries, where soft skills are less important (except at the highest levels) and pay generally higher.

What about differences in career interests? Not the answer — at least so far as one can judge from the fields in which black and white male college students received their bachelors degrees.

I’m compressing the reported results of the analysis. The authors report many more within-industry and cross-occupation comparisons.

But I think the data here are sufficient to show why they conclude that labor market discrimination is the most plausible explanation for the black/white earnings gap.

In other words, for whatever reasons, black men jobs are denied jobs in high-wage occupations. As a result, they’re “crowded” in low-wage occupations. And the very fact of their “over-crowding” depresses the wages further.

None of this is to say that we needn’t deal with black/white learning gaps in our public schools. Black youth who don’t graduate from high school — or who do graduate but can barely read or solve practical numerical problems — aren’t going to fare well in our economy, even if the labor market were genuinely color-blind.

But closing these gaps won’t eliminate the earnings gaps the EPI authors identify. Hard to know what will. As Algernon Austin, also at EPI, has written, race discrimination in the post-civil rights era is complex and difficult to address.

Still, it’s important to have studies that show we’ve got a long way to go before equal employment opportunity is a reality as well as a legal right.

* These are figures for men ages 20 and older. I use them because the figure in the CAP report represents this age bracket. Current figures for men 16 years and older are higher and the gap somewhat smaller.


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