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Despite education, black workers still face challenges

With the unemployment rate at a twenty-eight-year low of 4.5
percent, and discussion of discrimination unpopula in this
post-affirmative action era, scant attention has been focused on the
unemployment rate gap and the differential status of African American
workers. But yes, there is still an unemployment rate gap, and it
widened — not narrowed — in the face of economic prosperity.

Instead of the traditional 2:1 relationship between Black and White
unemployment rates, in August the Black unemployment rate was 9
percent, 2.25 times the White rate of 4 percent.

Wage gaps remain as well. The Washington, D.C.-based Economic
Policy Institute issued an early copy of its State of Working America
this past Labor Day. According to EPI, the 1997 hourly wage for White
women was $10.02, compared to $8.49 for African American women. The
wage gap has worsened over time: in 1989 the White female wage was
$9.84, while the Black wage was $8.76. Regardless of educational level,
White wages grew from 1989 to 1997, while wages for African Americans

College-educated African American women saw their wages drop 3.2
percent in the last five years, while White women who were college
graduates saw their wages grow by 4.4 percent.

Among men, the situation was somewhat different, although gaps
remain. White men earned $18.20 an hour, compared to the $12.92 that
African American men earned. Overall, men saw their wage levels drop in
the 1989-97 period, but African American men saw their wages drop more
precipitously. However, among college-educated men, there was slight
wage growth — with Black men’s wages growing twice as rapidly as White
men’s from 1989 to 1997. Nevertheless, White men earn $21.45 to the
$16.53 that Black men earn. Further, wage growth among White men was
far more pronounced than that of Black men in the past five years —
when White men’s wages grew by 2.5 percent, and Black men’s by just 0.1

While the data clearly indicate that college-educated African
Americans do better in the labor market than their noncollege-educated
counterparts, there is far more demand for workers in low-paying
industries than for workers in higher paying jobs that require a
college education.

Income data make it clear that there are limits in looking at
unemployment rate data alone. It also makes it clear that the rules of
“tight labor markets” do not seem to work for African American workers.
If standard laws of supply and demand dictate our economic reality,
then wages for African American workers, especially the
college-educated, would be rising more rapidly than those for Whites.
Instead, wages fell and the gap widened in the 1989-97 period.

During this period of economic expansion, high rates of Black
poverty remain constant when compared to White poverty rates, even
though Black poverty has declined slightly. The 1996 poverty rate of
28.4 percent is more than double the national poverty rate, and the
poverty rate for Black children — at 40 percent — is alarming.

This continuing poverty is partly a function of the tenuous status
of African American workers. One in five work in contingent employment
situations, in temporary or part-time jobs. Disproportionate numbers,
regardless of education, work in the low-wage service sector.

Meanwhile, there is little discussion about discrimination and
racism in labor markets. Despite several highly publicized cases of
corporate racism, most recently the Freddie Mac case, there are those
who would suggest that the labor market works equally well for African
Americans and for Whites. The fact is that while discussions of
discrimination are unpopular, African American workers continue to
experience both racist minutiae and structural discrimination in the
labor market. The data document many of the differentials, but they
only provide a skeletal framework for assessing the status of African
American workers.

Scholars who study labor markets must move past discussions of low
unemployment rates and new wage growth to consider the fact that
despite an expanding economy, African American workers — regardless of
education — still face many challenges. As we approach the millennium,
the challenges are likely to grow, not recede.

African Americans are less likely to use technology, to speak
languages other than English, and to be prepared to compete in the new
economy. Economic expansion has not changed that situation, except for
the few who have upgraded their skills in the face of new demands. And,
if we haven’t improved our position during a six-year economic
expansion, what will we do in recession?

Here is the bottom line: Whether African Americans are working in
academe, in the corporate sector, or in factories, there are pay and
employment differences that some would rather not discuss. But all is
not well for Black workers. There are still gaps to close,
discrimination to fight, and a future to secure.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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