For all of the progress African-Americans have made in climbing from Jim Crow into the middle class, one measure is a reminder of how hard it is to catch up when you start out so far behind: No matter how high or low the white unemployment rate, the black rate always doubles it.
“That’s pretty much the norm” for as long as the data has been kept, said Valerie Wilson, an Economic Policy Institute economist who began tracking the numbers quarterly and by state last year for a deeper look at the gaps.
New York was among 30 states that saw unemployment fall during 2016’s first quarter. In fact, since the recession, minorities have actually gained jobs at a faster pace than whites, with the black unemployment rate declining by 0.7 percent and the Hispanic rate dropping by 0.3 percent, compared to a 0.1 percent improvement for whites.
Yet, despite the gains, the ratio of black to white unemployment in the state remains at exactly 2-1.
Maybe that explains the protests over minority hiring at the Solar City plant and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Or the outcry over diversity on the $1 billion schools reconstruction project. And the objections to a two-tiered educational system in which white students are disproportionately represented in Buffalo’s better schools, giving them the inside track to the job market their parents and grandparents already dominate.
In fact, when Buffalo’s Partnership for the Public Good looked at employment and race here earlier this year, it found that the black-white jobless ratio in Erie County was nearly 3-1 – well above the statewide ratio – and that workers of color are concentrated in low-wage fields like healthcare support and underrepresented in professions such as law and finance.
As the Partnership concluded in its “Working Toward Equality” report, “The region cannot succeed with such disparities ... Poverty and inequality .. blight neighborhoods; and they impose large social and governmental costs. They are bad for business and hinder our chances for economic growth.”
The reasons for the gap are no mystery: Housing segregation here that isolates minorities from job opportunities. Disparate policing that gives more minorities a disqualifying criminal record. The aforementioned schools.
But don’t pin too much of the gap on education. Wilson said the 2-1 ratio holds even among college graduates, “so it’s more than just education.”
The myriad studies in which job seekers with matched résumés but “black” or “white” names get treated differently point to that thing we’d rather not talk about.
“Race has to be a factor in addressing that,” Wilson said of the gap. “It isn’t going away accidentally. ...Getting there is going to take effort, it will have to be something intentional and targeted.”
The Partnership makes the same point, calling for “targeted hire policies” by companies getting public assistance, goal-setting and public reports on their diversity efforts and more use of “tester” programs to enforce antidiscrimination laws.
Business people like to say “what gets measured gets done.” We’ve been measuring the black-white unemployment gap for a long time. So when will something get done?