Record Black unemployment lows of less than 6 percent, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in June, spurred some excitement around what some considered the incremental closing of the racial unemployment gap.
Even President Donald J. Trump attempted to take credit for the figures, though his claim has since been debunked.
Nevertheless, the unemployment figures don’t consider differences in education levels between Whites and Blacks, racial bias in the hiring process, the high likelihood of job loss among Blacks and Latinos, and the vast number of unemployed Black people who stop searching for jobs altogether.
“It used to be that you had a good-paying job no matter what, even day laboring. It was solid income, but now you’re finding that certain jobs have a stigma,” said Melanie Sampson, founder and lead manager of MResumes, a D.C.-based organization that guides people of various income and education levels along the job search.
Sampson said, since MResumes’ inception, she noticed a knowledge gap among first-generation college students and blue-collar professionals in D.C. who don’t fully understand the significance of constantly updating their resumes, acquiring valuable experience while on the job and attaining special certifications.
The self-described resume guru said she has encouraged young people, specifically high school graduates who struggled during their academic career and are skeptical about college, to enroll in trade programs and secure volunteer opportunities.
Lengthy periods of unemployment, she said, often deter employers and show a lack of intellectual fortitude, qualities that often separate applicants from their peers.
“People want to apply for jobs with the fancy title even though they might not be qualified,” Sampson said. “That doesn’t mean that they can’t get the training they need. We see more people entering the non-labor force as administrative assistants and project managers. If [they] have a career mindset, they tend to get the skill set for the next promotion [through training their jobs offer]. If not, they would just do what they’re told.”
The situation Sampson explained reveals a dismal post-recession economic situation that many Blacks in the District and other parts of the United States have faced in recent years.
A May report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) showed African-American unemployment to be twice that of Whites. At the beginning of the year, D.C.’s rate of Black unemployment of 12 percent made it the sole jurisdiction among the 22 states selected for the EPI study where the number hovered above 10 percent.
In May, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia) counted among the sponsors of a House bill that would address Black America’s economic situation through what has been described as “The Main Street Marshall Plan.”
If passed, the aptly-titled Jobs and Justice Act of 2018 would direct $4 trillion over 10 years to infrastructure projects, education, job training and health insurance as part of an effort to eliminate disparities in those arenas. It would also raise the national hourly minimum wage to $15 and abolish the death penalty.
“The African-American unemployment rate is not a good barometer of our community’s success,” U.S. Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D- La.) wrote in a press statement earlier this month explaining Jobs & Justice Tour 2018.
“When African-Americans were slaves and sharecroppers, African-American unemployment was 0 percent, but I don’t think anyone would say that our community was doing well then,” he said.
Delegate Norton’s office didn’t return The Informer’s request for comment.
Across the nation, in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black people, the unemployment rate stands much higher than the national average. Additionally, low, near-poverty wage among the part- and full-time employed have compounded the stress of tense police-community relations, food insecurity, unclean water and other social and economic ills in African-American communities.
Earlier this month, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which Richmond chairs, and the National Urban League launched the Jobs & Justice Tour, a series of town hall discussions across the country during which lawmakers and constituents discuss policies geared toward social and economic equality for African-American families.
The first town hall took place Aug. 23 at the Urban League of Detroit and Southeastern Michigan. Another event will take place next month at the Urban League of Philadelphia, weeks before the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in northwest D.C.
Though CBC members acknowledged at a May 10 press conference that the 1,334-page bill wouldn’t likely pass, they expressed hope that it would inform President Trump and congressional leaders how to improve life for African Americans.
“As a result of racism and discrimination in our country, African Americans still face a number of economic and social barriers that the federal government can and should help our community address since it was and still is complicit in building them,” Richmond said. “Although we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go, and the Jobs and Justice Act of 2018 will help us get there.”
Within African-American communities, unemployment rarely discriminates, regardless of birthplace or credentials, as seen in the case of Lesra English, who holds a bachelor’s degree but has been unemployed for the past few months after a federal government agency eliminated his position.
English, a Northeast resident who used a pseudonym in his interview with The Informer, said he has relied on soon-to-end unemployment benefits, confidence in his knowledge of IT-specific issues and the goodwill of friends to keep afloat.
“People are willing to be helpful, so I’ve just been kind of flexing my network,” said English, 29. “It’s been interesting jumping back in the job search.”
By English’s last day on the job in late June, he’d spent three years there as a management analyst and liaison.
Since his termination, the native Washingtonian said he’s been applying for at least 10 IT jobs a day and even entertained thoughts of driving Uber or taking on various part-time gigs.
Recently, what English thought had been a prosperous lead in the IT field fizzled at the last minute when he learned that his prospective employer lost a major contract on which he would have been working.
Even so, he said he’s learned to overcome the mental toll that long-term unemployment often takes on Black men by fully confronting his feelings.
“As fruitful as it could be, there have still been some situations,” English said. “But I manage to keep afloat. Being able to say I’m not OK when I’m not OK puts me in the best position. Having space to be vulnerable keeps me in check. It just dawned on me that the last two months went by very fast.”