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Still Invisible in The Labor Force

African-American Mens Unemployment Rate A National Disgrace

New America Media, News Report, Khalil Abdullah Posted: Jun 28, 2009

Editor's Note: The unemployment rate for African-American men remains frighteningly high, and no amount of stimulus money can help change that, if employers retain the current method of winnowing out prospective employees, reports NAM editor Khalil Abdullah.

While noting that Barack Obamas election to the U.S. presidency was a significant advance in the political sphere for African Americans and the country, sociologist Algernon Austin said the rate of unemployment among African-American men has remained abysmally stagnant over the past 40 years.

In 1968, when we started tracking unemployment rates in detail, the black unemployment rate was about twice the white unemployment rate, Austin said. In 2009, the black unemployment rate is about twice the white unemployment rate.

Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute, presented his findings at a recent forum co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the National Urban League Policy Institute (NULPI) titled, Weathering the Storm: Black Male Unemployment in the Recession.

He was one of four featured presenters speaking on the systemic barriers confronting African-American men as they look for work. Other speakers were Barbara Arnwine of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Neil Bomberg, National League of Cities; and Maurice Emsellem, National Employment Law Project.

For Austin, discrimination lies at the heart of the seemingly insoluble mystery of why African-American unemployment rates remain twice those of their white counterparts. He pointed to 2006 data, showing unemployment rates for African American men approaching 10 percent, what good times look like for black males, a rate now deemed a crisis among the Anglo male populace.

Austin surgically dispensed with other theories that attempted to explain the causes of the historic unemployment disparities. For example, lack of education, he admitted, was a factor, but education does not explain the full story by any means. In the cohort of laborers without a high school diploma, African-American workers were still being hired at half the rate of their Anglo peers for jobs that required minimal skills.

Stephanie Jones, executive director of NULPI, who introduced the speakers, said of all the challenges America is facing, the crisis of African-American men is one of the most neglected, unfortunately.

Black men, in many respects, are virtually invisible, except in some rare instances; for example, if theyre athletes or entertainers, [or] youll see their mug shots on the evening news.

The media also were criticized later in the discussion by Bomberg. He said that though some candidates attempted to raise the issue of African-American male unemployment during the presidential campaign, media went out of [their] way to contradict the arguments and, in a sense, to shut the debate down.

Jones claimed that Obama represented a positive role model for African-American men in his ascension to the apex of political power. However, she said it would take more than this feat alone to address negative stereotypes attributed to African-American men.

Arnwine was less hopeful than Jones about Obamas potential impact on African-American unemployment rates. In fact, she was critical of the presidents stated approach to addressing the issue. Arnwine said Obamas comment that African Americans would benefit through his economic stimulus package because raising the boats of all will raise the boats of minorities, was an inadequate policy response, one reminiscent of similar tepid statements and laissez-faire attitudes of former presidents Bush and Clinton.

Additionally, Arnwine pointed out factors that have taken on increased importance in diminishing the likelihood that African-American job applicants will be hired. She was critical of employers increased use of credit reports as a now prevalent tool to winnow the field of prospective employees. USA Today recently reported that 43 percent of employers check job applicants for overdue payments in their mortgages, rent, or credit cards, Arnwine noted.

Even for entry level jobs, or for jobs where there is no requirement or opportunity to handle money, Arnwine said the criteria of a clean credit record is often applied despite evidence that an imperfect credit record is not an accurate predictor of job competence or workplace theft.

Not only is the trustworthiness of minority job applicants being undermined, she argued, but the vicious cycle of not being able to get a job to pay our creditors is a Catch-22 in which many African Americans -- especially African-American men -- continue to find themselves. Citing a remark by Hawaiian state Rep. Marcus Oshiro, Arnwine said, Its almost like being forever sentenced to debtors prison.

And, because they tarnish credit records, home foreclosures and their great impact on African-American and Latino communities will inevitably affect employment rates.

Arnwine was incensed that minority communities are being intentionally targeted, often by zip code, for payday lending, sub-prime mortgages, mortgage re-financing schemes and a menu of deceptive lending practices.

Compounding the growing use of credit reports, the proliferation of background checks by large employers and often mandated by state and federal laws, is also pushing job seekers to the edges of the employment market. In the context of a recession, the wholesale use of background checks is a much bigger issue, Emsellem argued.

Emsellem explained that data on arrests, for example, often are not updated and therefore inaccurate because they dont convey the full disposition of a case, such as an appeal or dismissal. And, for the 700,000 ex-offenders re-entering society annually, chances for employment are already reduced due to discriminatory hiring practices.

Emsellem named nursing, private security, bus drivers, school employees, janitors, folks like that -- big entry level industries heavily populated by African Americans and people of color -- as some of the industries now having difficulties sorting through background check requirements.

But he reminded the audience that one in four Americans has a criminal record. Though Emsellem acknowledged that the use of background checks existed before 9-11, their use skyrocketed afterward due to legitimate security concerns, as well as laws like the Patriot Act.

However, Emsellen said that because the largest employer, the federal government, is not only relying on inaccurate data, there should be more allowances for people who have turned their lives around, despite criminal convictions. He spoke briefly about the Ban the box movement, a grass-roots initiative that sought to remove the up-front requirement of checking a box on the employment form to admit a criminal conviction.

The movements founders, ex-offenders, claimed that employers used the check box as a means to discriminate; applicants never get called back for a follow-up interview. A better process would be to require disclosure of a conviction at the end of the application process, in effect giving those with convictions a chance to explain their circumstances after successfully meeting other job requirements, Emsellen said.

Bomberg, representing the National League of Cities, said economic development was much less likely in communities with high unemployment levels, and that a sense of hopelessness can also set in. He faulted, in part, the previous administration for a lack of investment in urban communities, and spoke about policy approaches to alleviating unemployment; better aligning education with the job market, as but one example.

However, since the War on Poverty, he explained, there has not been significant change in the patterns of African-American male unemployment, an observation Austin made in his opening presentation.

Related Articles:

Report Confirms Black Male Employment is Lacking

Recession Continues Dream of Home Ownership

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