Race and joblessness 

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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