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Race and joblessness

Kate Richey December 7th, 2011

The job market in Oklahoma is considerably better than in most other states, but its employment situation remains bleak for African-Americans. The unemployment rate for black workers in Oklahoma City last year was nearly 13 percent, almost double the rate for the city’s white workers.

Statewide, black workers are unemployed at about twice the rate of white workers; they also stay unemployed longer and are more likely to be working part-time because they couldn’t find a full-time job.

Much of the gap is driven by exceptionally high unemployment rates among black men, which is about two and half times that of their white counterparts. In fact, black unemployment is significantly higher than that of whites at all levels of educational attainment.

What accounts for these disparities?

The best research points out that black workers aren’t achieving employment parity because of their higher incarceration rate, especially among black men. Oklahoma incarcerated 25,476 people in 2010, 30.5 percent of whom were black, despite accounting for only 7.4 percent of the state’s population. Nearly 39 percent of all black men in Oklahoma have been incarcerated or placed on probation for a felony conviction at some point in their lives.

right, Kate Richey

High incarceration rates amount to a double whammy for black joblessness. Since the U.S. labor department doesn’t include prison populations when calculating unemployment statistics, the already sky-high black jobless rate is actually even higher than the reported figure. Incarceration multiplies the effects of hiring discrimination on black unemployment, as bias against hiring ex-offenders is well-documented and widespread.

But employment discrimination is not limited to black ex-offenders. Despite a litany of post-election commentary in 2008 and best-selling books heralding the end of racism in America, scholarly research is unequivocal that hiring discrimination against black applicants is alive and well.

Sociologist Devah Pager’s groundbreaking peer-reviewed research has demonstrated that black applicants without a criminal record are less likely to get callbacks from prospective employers than white applicants with a criminal record and just released from prison.

Economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology report a sizable gap in callbacks for job applicants with white-sounding names, versus those with black-sounding names. When researchers submitted identical résumés online, Brendan, Gregg, Emily and Anne received 50 percent more callbacks across the board than Tamika, Aisha, Rasheed and Tyrone.

The sobering reality is that black unemployment is probably even worse than the data documents and perpetuated by high incarceration rates and deeply entrenched prejudice.

We must invest in economic development strategies that create jobs equitably and target communities of color with programs designed to provide relief to the long-suffering, long-term unemployed. Oklahoma City’s population is already about 40 percent nonwhite, and its minority population will continue to grow. Persistent racial inequity in the job market is a drag on economic growth. Left unaddressed, such disparities will weigh down an ever-increasing share of our workers and dim Oklahoma’s prospects for future prosperity.

Kate Richey is a policy analyst at the Oklahoma Policy Institute, specializing in health care, immigration and economic policy.

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12.07.2011 at 08:43 Reply

What’s sad is that while you cite several facts that are indisputable, this commentary is going to most likely attract some major hate mail.  And in stereotypical fashion it will all be from white males not unlike myself.

Incarceration does play a major role in employment.  Since the civil rights movement, law enforcement has taken to incarcerating minorities more than whites.  The predisposition to put a minority behind bars has lead to tainted evidence and even executions of wrongfully accused minorities.  Sadly this becomes a cyclical process.  The minorities seeing that they are labeled as criminals without individual proof are often more apt to succumb to that stereotype.  So the question is, what can we do to show minorities that they can be better than the mold society has created for them, and by doing so, destroy that mold? 

Equal opportunity was created to counter these societal influences.  Lamentably this seems to create an additional undercurrent of hatred within the white community.  The delusion being that a qualified white person is denied employment in lieu of an unqualified minority.  I get how one might assume that’s going on, but I do not see (in the law) where such a thing is mandated, and thus it is a fallacy.  Whites assume they are discriminated against because a minority instantly has a basis for a lawsuit based on race.  But the fact that any employer who hired based on qualifications would not lose that lawsuit should put all those fears to rest.  No one is asking that employers hire based on anything other than individual merit, and that’s really all we can ask.  If employers are doing that, then they have no need to fear repercussions from discrimination claims.

I must admit that in the wake of President Obama’s election, a wave of hatred has come to the shores.  It’s as though it’s now cool to be racist.  I don’t take this lightly.  The fact that the moment we got an educated minority in our nations top position it became trendy to deride him for having the intelligence to support such a position, and in lieu of attacking his education we even saw people going so far as to target his citizenship.   This highlights a huge problem in our society.  We repeatedly tell our children that they can be anything they want to when they go up, but apparently there are certain caveats if you are a minority.  Those being, you can work extremely hard to get to the top, but if you are a minority, you will spend the rest of your life having to continually prove to everyone else that you are good enough to be where you are. 

The solution to this problem is not an easy one.  But having witnessed the discrimination one can face in the employment process when having a criminal record I feel a good step would be to make it illegal to discriminate against those with criminal convictions (with several obvious exceptions; sex offenders cannot work with children, felons cannot work in banks casinos, etc….) But there should also be a point at which those convictions no longer affect the employment process.  I once saw a man turned away from a menial labor job because he had a 17 year old conviction.  There is no excuse for that.  If someone has proven they are capable of trust, then it’s a benefit that we extend them our trust.  This idea that once a criminal you’re always a criminal is preposterous.  It is especially important to consider this these days when what once might have been petty crimes just 2 decades ago are considered felonies today.  Such things are common among the youth of today, not specifically minority youth.  It is incompetent for us to punish youth with a lifetime criminal record for crimes which do not result in the death or injury of another person.

If we can just get those people who are burdened with a regrettable criminal past to experience the promise of continued employment and a steady paycheck we can significantly reduce the likelihood that they will continue a life of crime because employment discrimination leaves them with few if any options.  This is not a minority problem, this is a societal problem. 

Even Jesus forgave Judas.