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Hard Times For African-American Workers


Although many Americans have been hit hard by the continuing – and alarming – growth of unemployment, none have come close to being hit as devastatingly hard as the country’s African-American workers.

The unemployment rate among African-Americans is above 15 percent, more than twice the rate for white workers and almost 7 percent higher than the rate for African-American rate a year ago. The jobless include more than one-third of the African-Americans aged 16 to 19 who want and need jobs.

The figures come from a new report by the Center for American Progress, a think tank headed by John Podesta, the Georgetown University law professor who served as President Clinton’s chief of staff.

As bad as the situation is, the report says it "will likely only increase as the economic crisis deepens."

That’s partly because so many African-Americans work in manufacturing and construction, which have been hurting the most of any industries during the current economic turmoil.  The continuing troubles in the auto industry alone could lead to hundreds of thousands or more black auto workers being laid off — an especially troubling prospect, since jobs in the auto industry are the best paying jobs available to large numbers of African-Americans.

The report says that, wherever they worked, laid-off African-Americans are less likely than jobless white workers to get Unemployment Insurance benefits, and many who get them are still looking for work when their benefit payout periods expire.  Perhaps as many as one-fourth of all jobless African-Americans run out of benefits — or have none to begin with because they live in states that deny benefits to many part-time and low-wage workers.

Finding a job in today’s troubled economy obviously is not easy for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for African-Americans.  Many still face outright discrimination.

As the report notes, "Employers are generally more averse to hiring black males than those from any other racial and gender group, especially in jobs that require social or verbal skills, and in service occupations."

And though employers are generally reluctant to hire ex-convicts, the report notes that African-Americans with no criminal record at all fare no better when seeking jobs than do white applicants who’ve recently been released from prison.

To make it worse, fewer and fewer African-Americans have had the weapon of unionization to fight such discrimination. Although the percentage of black workers in unions is currently higher than that for workers generally – about 16 percent to about 12 percent – it’s been declining steadily.

African-Americans who do belong to unions have had a better chance of holding their jobs than non-union workers, who lack the unified strength to fight layoffs. They’ve also had the higher compensation that comes with unionization. But, as the auto workers’ recent experience shows, unions can go only so far when faced with severe economic problems such as now beset the country.

Jobless black auto workers and other unemployed African-Americans will be competing for  jobs with more of those white ex-prisoners, as well as more black ex-offenders because, as the report says, "state governments are releasing thousands of prisoners to save taxpayer dollars."  That’s in addition to the 700,000 prisoners who already are being released annually.

The report recommends that communities make special efforts to find "full-time consistent employment" for ex-prisoners and "stress racial equity and equal opportunity in policies to promote economic recovery and to create jobs."

Specific recommendations call for "vigorous enforcement " of anti-discrimination laws, increased support for affirmative action, tax breaks for employers who "promote racial diversity," removing "restrictive" unemployment benefit regulations, extending the benefits of jobless workers while they’re training for open jobs, and supporting the pending Employee Free Choice Act that would make it easier for workers to unionize– because "strong unions promote income equity and raise wages for all workers."

Sensible, enlightened, progressive, necessary, fair.  The proposals are all that, and more.  Yet the odds, of course, are against their enactment. But maybe we’ll get lucky.

Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based writer, has covered labor issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor and commentator.  Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.

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