African-Americans With College Degrees Are Twice As Likely to Be Unemployed as Other Graduates

A new study finds that 12.4 percent of black college graduates were unemployed. For all college graduates, the unemployment rate stood at just 5.6 percent.

National Journal
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Janell Ross
May 27, 2014, 1 a.m.

The Ivy-League-edu­cated barista who can’t find a job that pays enough to live any­where be­sides her child­hood bed­room. The freshly min­ted MBA and law school gradu­ates strapped with debt and frus­trated about the six-fig­ure jobs and mas­ter-of-the-uni­verse titles that haven’t ma­ter­i­al­ized. 

Nearly five years after the Great Re­ces­sion of­fi­cially ended, the struggles and dampened ex­pect­a­tions of young col­lege gradu­ates have be­come a fix­ture of Amer­ic­an polit­ics and even pop­u­lar cul­ture. But amid all the fo­cus on the dif­fi­culties of col­lege-edu­cated mil­len­ni­als, one fa­cet of this up­heav­al has re­mained largely un­ex­plored: the con­tin­ued sig­ni­fic­ance of race.

As a new crop of col­lege gradu­ates joins the Amer­ic­an work­force, un­em­ploy­ment rates among minor­it­ies with de­grees re­main dis­tinctly el­ev­ated and their eco­nom­ic pro­spects dis­pro­por­tion­ately dimmed, a new re­port re­leased by the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Policy Re­search has found. 

In 2013, the most re­cent peri­od for which un­em­ploy­ment data are avail­able by both race and edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment, 12.4 per­cent of black col­lege gradu­ates between the ages of 22 and 27 were un­em­ployed. For all col­lege gradu­ates in the same age range, the un­em­ploy­ment rate stood at just 5.6 per­cent. The fig­ures point to an ugly truth: Black col­lege gradu­ates are more than twice as likely to be un­em­ployed.

White men with re­cent crim­in­al his­tor­ies are far more likely to re­ceive calls back than black men with no crim­in­al re­cord at all.

“We ab­so­lutely aren’t try­ing to dis­cour­age people from go­ing to col­lege,” said John Schmitt, a seni­or eco­nom­ist at the Wash­ing­ton-based Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Policy Re­search who coau­thored the study. “Col­lege de­grees do have value. But what we are try­ing to show here is that this is not about in­di­vidu­als, or in­di­vidu­al ef­fort. There is simply over­whelm­ing evid­ence that dis­crim­in­a­tion re­mains a ma­jor fea­ture of the labor mar­ket.”

Schmitt poin­ted to a series of stud­ies that have in re­cent years found that when trained sets of black and white test­ers with identic­al re­sumes are sent on in­ter­views, white men with re­cent crim­in­al his­tor­ies are far more likely to re­ceive calls back than black men with no crim­in­al re­cord at all.

In fact, the cen­ter’s study found that even black stu­dents who ma­jored in high-de­mand fields such as en­gin­eer­ing fare only slightly bet­ter than those who spent their col­lege years earn­ing lib­er­al arts de­grees. Between 2010 and 2012, 10 per­cent of black col­lege gradu­ates with en­gin­eer­ing de­grees and 11 per­cent of those with math and com­puter-re­lated de­grees were un­em­ployed, com­pared with 6 per­cent of all en­gin­eer­ing gradu­ates and 7 per­cent of all those who fo­cused their stud­ies on math and com­puters.

Col­lege-edu­cated blacks are also more likely than all oth­ers with de­grees to con­front un­der­em­ploy­ment, which the study defined as work­ing in jobs that don’t re­quire a four-year de­gree. The pro­por­tion of young Afric­an-Amer­ic­an col­lege gradu­ates who are un­der­em­ployed has spiked since 2007 by fully 10 per­cent­age points to a strik­ing 56 per­cent. Dur­ing that same peri­od, un­der­em­ploy­ment among all re­cent col­lege gradu­ates has edged up only slightly to around 45 per­cent.

The study also found that among older col­lege gradu­ates, the gap in the un­em­ploy­ment rate nar­rows but doesn’t dis­ap­pear. Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics data in­dic­ates that in 2013, 3.5 per­cent of all white col­lege gradu­ates were un­em­ployed while nearly 6 per­cent of all black col­lege gradu­ates sought work but could not find it.

Many stud­ies have found that work­ers un­able to find steady em­ploy­ment dur­ing their first years in the labor mar­ket of­ten pay long-term costs. Dur­ing the first five years after school, people try on, dis­card and pick up bet­ter-fit­ting ca­reers, de­vel­op key skills, typ­ic­ally make ma­jor in­come gains, and be­gin to plug in­to the pro­fes­sion­al net­works that provide train­ing, con­tacts, and new job op­por­tun­it­ies in the fu­ture. When un­em­ploy­ment dis­rupts that pro­cess it can per­man­ently al­ter the tra­ject­ory of a work­er’s life­time earn­ings, eco­nom­ists have con­cluded.

When un­em­ploy­ment dis­rupts that pro­cess it can per­man­ently al­ter the tra­ject­ory of a work­er’s life­time earn­ings, eco­nom­ists have con­cluded.

The situ­ation for oth­er minor­it­ies falls some­where in between that of blacks and whites, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al data. In 2013, the share of all col­lege-edu­cated Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans who were un­em­ployed roughly equaled the pro­por­tion of whites: 3.6 per­cent. All His­pan­ic col­lege gradu­ates faced a 5 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment rate, more than whites but less than Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans.

For most of the past 50 years, the over­all black un­em­ploy­ment rate has re­mained twice as high as the white un­em­ploy­ment rate. That gap has con­sist­ently grown lar­ger dur­ing times of eco­nom­ic dis­tress. In­deed, the cen­ter study found that the gap between the un­em­ploy­ment rate for young Afric­an-Amer­ic­an col­lege gradu­ates and all oth­er gradu­ates has soared from 3.7 per­cent­age points in 2007 to 6.8 points today.

“This study — its find­ings, as ter­rible as they are — hon­estly should not come as a shock to any­one who is will­ing to face the truth about em­ploy­ment and un­em­ploy­ment in the United States,” said Nancy DiTo­maso, a pro­fess­or at Rut­gers Uni­versity who stud­ies in­equal­ity and or­gan­iz­a­tion­al di­versity.

DiTo­maso says the study, like oth­er re­search, chal­lenges the as­sump­tion that op­por­tun­ity is avail­able to all Amer­ic­ans who equip them­selves with the right skills. Private-sec­tor labor data re­por­ted to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment shows little change in the share of man­age­ment and ex­ec­ut­ive-level jobs held by ra­cial and eth­nic minor­it­ies since the 1980s, she said. In fact, in in­dus­tries that of­fer work­ers the best wages, the share of white men in these jobs has ac­tu­ally grown.

The cen­ter’s study noted that half of the na­tion’s man­age­ment, pro­fes­sion­al, and re­lated oc­cu­pa­tions — those the study de­scribed as fields where many col­lege gradu­ates ul­ti­mately work — em­ploy a dis­pro­por­tion­ately small share of black male work­ers. 

In her 2013 book, The Amer­ic­an Non-Di­lemma: Ra­cial In­equal­ity Without Ra­cism, DiTo­maso con­cluded that ra­cial in­equal­ity isn’t rooted solely in ra­cist ideas or con­scious ef­forts to ex­clude some groups from dis­tinct op­por­tun­it­ies. In­stead, she ar­gued that in­form­al net­works al­low whites, who still hold most of the de­cision-mak­ing po­s­i­tions in the private eco­nomy, to hoard and dis­trib­ute ad­vant­age among their fam­ily and friends, who tend to be mostly white.

While re­search­ing her book, DiTomaco con­duc­ted 246 in­ter­views with work­ing-class and middle-class white in­di­vidu­als over a dec­ade in Ten­ness­ee, Ohio, and New Jer­sey. DiTo­maso gathered de­tailed job his­tor­ies and in­form­a­tion about the way her study par­ti­cipants ob­tained jobs over the course of their ca­reers. The whites among those DiTo­maso in­ter­viewed found 70 per­cent of the jobs they held over their life­times through in­side in­form­a­tion shared by a fam­ily mem­ber, friend, or neigh­bor, a dir­ect in­ter­ven­tion (someone walk­ing a re­sume in­to a hir­ing man­ager’s of­fice or a dir­ect re­quest that a fam­ily mem­ber or friend get an open job) or oth­er means not open to the gen­er­al pub­lic. 

“I think it’s high time,” DiTo­maso said, “that we really star­ted to look closely not just at the ways that the labor mar­ket is biased against blacks but the ways in which it is biased in fa­vor of whites.”

The re­search­ers be­hind the cen­ter’s study of black col­lege gradu­ate em­ploy­ment pat­terns em­phas­ized the role that the re­ces­sion has played in dampen­ing every work­er’s em­ploy­ment pro­spects. But they con­cluded that the long-term un­em­ploy­ment crisis among black col­lege gradu­ates ul­ti­mately could not be ex­plained without ac­count­ing for con­tinu­ing dis­crim­in­a­tion against black ap­plic­ants.

One of their fi­nal pieces of evid­ence: a study pushed in­to the na­tion­al spot­light last month in which part­ners at a num­ber of law firms scored the same memo far dif­fer­ently when told that the au­thor was white or black. “Those are the in­sti­tu­tion­al factors that have a long-term ef­fect on people’s eco­nom­ic lives,” Schmitt said.

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