In today’s labor market, a ‘good job’ allows one to meet their financial goals and access benefits for their families, such as health and life insurance. However, for Black Americans—the group with the highest unemployment rate and lowest incomes of any group in the U.S.—that essential stability conferred by such a job is wholly absent. This section of the ADOS Advocacy Foundation’s Black agenda will survey the history of public policy that led to this dire situation and propose new policies that, if implemented, will improve the economic health of Black America while helping to close the racial wealth gap.
Black unemployment begins with Reconstruction and extends up to our present moment. In his 1967 speech, “The Other America”, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed how race, poverty, and economic injustice work to create what are essentially two different national experiences for American citizens. He described one America as a land filled with the “milk of prosperity” and “honey of equality,” where millions of people bask in what he calls the “sunlight of opportunity.” King was describing the white American experience at that time. He continued to describe the other America, Black America, as having an “ugliness that transforms hope into fatigue and despair.” He states, “In this other America, men walk the streets in search of jobs that do not exist.” King was calling attention to the duality between white and Negro American communities. Unfortunately, that duality persists, and today’s conditions mirror the grim picture of employment and opportunity in King’s 1967 speech.1
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in June of 1950, 10.5% of Black Americans and 3.8% of whites were unemployed among the 25-34-year-old demographic.2 And, despite the various anti-discrimination policies that were implemented since the 1950s, in 2013 the Pew Research Center found that the Black unemployment rate has consistently been twice that of whites since the BLS started recording unemployment data in the 1950s.3 In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, 83.7% of Black workers in California filed for unemployment benefits. White Californians filed for unemployment at a rate of 38.5% during that same time.4 Additionally, it is important to note that only people who are jobless, looking for a job, and are available for work are included in the BLS unemployment calculations. Discouraged workers, institutionalized persons (students, military, or incarcerated), or persons no longer looking for work are not included in unemployment data. So, unemployment numbers for Black Americans are often more pronounced than the numbers suggest. In fact, in May of 2021, only 55.4% of Black American workers were employed, meaning that 44.6% of Black workers were unemployed or uncounted in the labor force.5 This illustrates that Black Americans have always faced disproportionately worse economic conditions than whites, conditions so desperate that there appears to be two Americas, both then and now.
While many federal programs have lifted Americans out of economic despair, those programs have often neglected the severity of the Black American economic situation or excluded Black people altogether. For instance, in the 1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal work relief program, capped Black American enrollment at 10 percent. This quota reflected the racial profile of the national population but failed to take into consideration the extreme lopsidedness in unemployment between Blacks and whites.6 CCC camps in some Southern states outright refused Black Americans, arguing that they were needed to “tend fields”.6 Additionally, the Social Security Act of 1935 provided a safety net for workers, assuring income in retirement. However, the Act excluded two professions, agricultural and domestic workers, of which 65% were descendants of American chattel slavery.7 Upon cursory examination, it becomes clear that a persistent feature of the New Deal programs was the intentional exclusion of Black Americans from provisions that stabilized white American communities. And as a result, the relegation of Black people to the lowest ranks of American society continued.