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Reshaping the Narrative Can Improve Life for Young Black Workers


Black workers, particularly young Black workers, have been harmed through a narrative informed by systemic discrimination. They’re not the only ones. Latinx workers and LGBTQ workers encounter similar struggles. But there are ways to change the pervasive narrative that can help shape policies that promote a healthier working life and wealth-earning potentials for these professionals.

Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, president of the Joint Center.Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, president of the Joint Center.Those are some of the findings in a new report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Black-led national think-tank working to remove the barriers facing Black Americans. Their study includes an analysis of media discussing varying economic and work concerns, and conversations with focus groups, including one formed in 2022 at the Joint Center, the Black Youth Worker Task Force, which united 11 young, Black, full-time, entry- to mid-level workers who have earned a four-year degree.

“Narrative change is an important part of driving policy change,” said Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, president of the Joint Center, speaking during a webinar on Wednesday and sharing the results of their study.

The new narrative Asante-Muhammad and the Joint Center hope to encourage is one that centers the young Black worker, engages relevant audiences, and informs future communities. It’s a story that can be told in every sector, from policy making, to economic study, to education.

In their examination of media coverage, the Joint Center found that a mere 11% framed young Black workers positively, including historical and economic context when discussing their challenges. However, 60% of the media examined represented Black workers in a negative light.

“[Positive media] portray Black workers as people of agency and advocates for their labor rights or creating inclusive workspaces,” said Justin Nalley, senior policy analyst at the Joint Center. “Most media pieces use a negative tone to describe young Black workers. Overwhelmingly, the content focused on the unemployment rate of these young Black workers rather than the labor market conditions or the systemic conditions leading to this pattern.”

The Joint Center proposed 13 “messaging elements” that can help create more accurate narratives. These elements include a necessary acknowledgment of the connection between racial divides and economic difficulties, and the connection between racial justice and economic justice. There must be an understanding, the report says, that racism is a tool used to create division that hurts everyone. No story about young Black and Brown workers should be told without acknowledging the historic background and systemic injustice. Stories must focus on the larger context instead of individual behaviors. The Joint Center also encouraged a moral understanding of who the villains are, those who are taking actions that are harmful to others.

“Finding common ground is really important but can be very difficult when certain topics of conversation are being discussed,” said Cierra Baker, a member of the Black Youth Worker Task Force. “Learning to be comfortable during uncomfortable conversations is the first step to bridging the gap.”

Satra D. Taylor, director of higher education and workforce policy and advocacy at Young Invincibles.Satra D. Taylor, director of higher education and workforce policy and advocacy at Young Invincibles.Satra D. Taylor, director of higher education and workforce policy and advocacy at Young Invincibles, a national organization connecting young people to policy, and Wisdom Cole, national director of youth and college at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said that young Black students and graduates are eager to be engaged in conversations with policy leaders. Both called on higher education policymakers to address the compounding student debt struggles, which more profoundly impact students of color, to ensure that young Black workers have the same opportunities to break free of intergenerational poverty.

“We cannot discuss Black workers’ financial opportunities and economic security without acknowledging the current student debt crisis, and the need for urgent relief,” said Taylor. “Research has shown that four years after graduation, Black graduates owe an average of $52,000, compared to $28,000 for the white average graduate. That is unacceptable. Some student loan debt is suffocating Black workers and preventing them from being able to achieve financial freedom.”

Focus group participants were able to share personal experiences in the workplace, as influenced by the greater number of disparity-driven narratives. These experiences include encountering bias that Black workers are difficult to communicate with, lazy, or incapable. Many young Black workers said they feel that simply being qualified isn’t enough—they need to be overqualified for the roles they seek, especially when compared to their white counterparts.

Participants said that professionalism has become intrinsically linked with whiteness, and they agreed that oftentimes the narrative of “Black excellence” can become toxic, putting pressure on them to be more than just regular people.

But, when young Black workers are given a chance to share their side of the story, the narrative is able to shift, said Taylor.

“So as advocates, as nonprofits, as funders, you have to ask yourself, ‘What are we doing to help build the narrative? How are we providing [young Black workers] with the resources that they need to shape change and shift some of these narratives that are outdated, or deficit-based?’” asked Taylor. “So more than anything, the narrative-building gives a platform and power to communities who have been historically oppressed to curate change.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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