Economy & Business

The Rise in Black Unemployment Is about More Than Race

Job seekers fill out employment forms at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. career fair held by the New York State department of Labor in New York, in 2012. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Bridging the economic gap between black and white workers starts with bridging the achievement gap in K–12 education.

Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its disappointing monthly jobs report, which showed that the economy had added only 250,000 jobs in August, far fewer than the 750,000 expected. While the overall unemployment rate dropped to 5.2 percent from the previous 5.4 percent, the unemployment rate for black Americans was also a lowlight, rising from 8.2 percent to 8.8 percent while the unemployment rate for whites dropped from 4.8 percent to 4.5 percent.

The latter disparity led AFL-CIO chief economist William Spriggs to argue that the primary cause of rising black unemployment is discrimination. Spriggs noted that the unemployment rate among black workers who had attained associate degrees (6.9 percent) exceeded the 5.8 percent unemployment rate among white high-school dropouts. Moreover, the unemployment rate for those of all races with less than a high-school diploma was 7 percent, while the unemployment rate for blacks with a high-school diploma and no college degree was 10 percent. This led Spriggs to argue that employers are clearly “passing over Black workers.”

I would respectfully disagree with Spriggs. While there is certainly some racial discrimination in the jobs market, the primary factor inhibiting higher economic attainment within the black population is the failure of urban public-school districts to adequately prepare black students for a four-year college or, alternatively, other post-secondary education such as technical or vocational training. Historically, whites of all economic classes have received better educations than blacks, so until we achieve parity in educational opportunities for all students, we shouldn’t expect to see a statistical trend toward equal levels of employment.

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, nearly 60 years ago, attributing economic disparities between blacks and whites primarily to racism would have been warranted. But in 2021, such a knee-jerk response is intellectually lazy at best and dishonest at worst. At this late date, too many other factors are in play that have little to do with racial bigotry: the ravages of poverty most often associated with out-of-wedlock births, the value placed on education at home, the degree of parental involvement in terms of homework and other learning, and, of course, the quality of the schools students attend.

This last factor plays a particularly important role in creating the economic disparity between black and white Americans. Take, for instance, the current state of K–12 education for black students in California, based on recent statistics from an article by Ricardo Cano at Cal Matters:

  • In 2019, 21 percent of black students were proficient in math, compared to 54 percent of white students and 74 percent of Asian students. Thirty-three percent of black students were proficient in English, compared to 65 percent of white students and 77 percent of Asian students.
  • Also in 2019, just 24 percent of graduating black high-school seniors were prepared for postsecondary education, compared to 54 percent of their white peers and 74 percent of their Asian peers.
  • A recent study by Stanford researchers found that school poverty, not a school’s racial composition, is the primary driver of student-achievement gaps. In short, minority students are concentrated in high-poverty schools, which are on average less effective than lower-poverty schools.

Given these realities, comparing black workers with associate degrees to white high-school dropouts is comparing apples and oranges. A person who has dropped out from an excellent high school could very well have more marketable skills than a person who graduated from a low-performing high school and went on to two years of college before dropping out. While a person who has earned an associate degree will generally possess more marketable skills than a high-school dropout, there is no guarantee, as it depends on what each of them studied and how they performed in their post-secondary pursuits.

The bottom line is that bridging the economic gap between black and white workers starts with bridging the achievement gap in K–12 education, and bridging the achievement gap in K–12 education starts with giving all students school choice and equal access to a quality education. Until we do that, comparing the unemployment rate by race only fans the flames of dissension (which is perhaps the intent) and, worse yet, distracts from tackling the root causes of black Americans’ lagging academic and economic performance. Interestingly, the one thing blacks possess now relative to 60-plus years ago is the full power to vote out of office public-school administrators who don’t serve their kids’ interests.

Blacks are hardly powerless regarding the fate of our children’s education. It’s time we took advantage of the opportunity to direct who educates us and how.

Walter Myers III is a board member of Discovery Institute and an adjunct faculty lecturer at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology.

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