Psychology of Black Unemployment: Impact felt deep in the African American psyche
As she watched President Barack Obama lay out his jobs plan for the nation and repeatedly challenge Congress to address the issue immediately, Madelyn Broadus was thinking “finally, somebody is for the people. It seems like for the past 12 years, (the government) is always for corporations and big fat cats. I really feel like he said it right for how we can begin again, the hard-working American people,” explained Broadus, one of the 14 million unemployed people that the president was speaking of during his speech.
A sheet metal worker who specializes in installing heating and air conditioning in commercial and industrial buildings, Broadus has not worked a job since November 2009.
“I went to a five-year apprentice program, and when I was about to come out that’s when the construction industry went flat,” said Broadus, who has existed on unemployment since her last job.
Broadus is not alone as she struggles through long-term unemployment; nor is her situation unique . . . in the Black community.
In fact, a look at employment numbers back to when the United States Department of Labor (DOL) first began segmenting out statistics by race (1972), yields the data that shows the Black unemployment rate has consistently been at least double the national average. In 1982 and 1983, for example, Black unemployment ranged from 17 to 21 percent, while the national rate for that same period ranged from 8.6 to 10.8 percent.
And these numbers, just as today’s 16.7 percent rate for Blacks probably understated the number of jobless, believes sociologist Michael Hodge, Ph.D. He said the numbers do not count those who have just stopped looking.
In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics produces a report called U6, which is a broader measure of labor underutilization. For example, in June of last year, the DOL unemployment rate was 15.7 percent in July of 2010 while the U6 rate (which includes the officially unemployed, discouraged workers, the marginally attached who have fallen out of the labor force and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time work) was 23.6 percent.
The historically high Black unemployment rates even prompted researchers at UC Berkeley to develop a Black Employment and Unemployment Data Brief that is published each month, shortly after the labor department releases its unemployment figures.
The idea behind the brief said Steven C. Pitts, Ph.D., a labor policy specialist with the Center for Labor Research and Education is to make it easy for people to access all the numbers when it comes to Black unemployment. Pitts said the labor department puts out the basic numbers, but Berkeley’s data briefs drill deeper to look at various segments within the Black community.
“The Data Brief has been out 16 months now, and I think what it has done is give people a quick way to get the numbers themselves. It has allowed people to talk with some authority about Black unemployment. It’s also been able to expand the conversation around Black unemployment and economic issues.”
Some of that expanded talk has been about the impact on Blacks in public-sector employment, where Pitts said about 20 percent of Black folk work.
The long-term nature of African American unemployment is one of the reasons Hodge believes there are some deeply embedded causes for the problem in the Black community.
“There are some structural issues that are causes of the high rate of Black unemployment,” said the chair of the Morehouse College Department of Sociology. “I don’t want to discount discrimination, because (it) is still a factor in the high unemployment of African Americans, but there are some structural factors at work as well. One of which is education. We have a lower rate of high school completion and college graduation, and that is particularly true among Black men today.”
Hodge said the lower educational attainment is directly tied to a lower rate of employment.
Another structural challenge is the shifting of the U.S. economy away from a manufacturing to a service one. He noted that these were the types of well-paid jobs African American males could get without a college degree.
But the economy’s service-ward shift, combined with off-shore outsourcing, discrimination, and inadequate education have left Blacks, especially men, in the precarious position of not being able to find decent jobs that enable them to support families.
And this definitely has an impact on the entire African American community and contributes in unexplored ways to many of the challenges and ills that are prevalent, believe researchers.
“Black America has always had an alternate vision of work and work opportunities . . . and has had an informal, underground economy that’s always been a factor in their lives,” points out Alford Young Jr., a professor of sociology and African American Studies and chair of the sociology department of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
This alternative work often leads to constant thoughts about how to supplement your income, noted Young.
“This is very much a stressor and provides an interesting spin on the long-standing notion that Black people, particularly lower income folk only live for today . . . and have an inability to think about the long run and are not prepared for delayed gratification,” said Young.
In actuality, the sociologist said these individuals are in almost continual survivor mode.
Young added that in this situation there is a cognitive dissonance when it comes to understanding mainstream work.
“When, for a good portion of your adult life, you exist on the margin, you lose our sense of understanding of the work environment, and what social ties matter most for work,” Young said. Consequently, if they do get a job, in order to preserve their dignity on the job such individuals may take actions that are antithetical to keeping the job.
Hodge, of Morehouse, said the other long-term impacts include an increase in crime, and with more people interacting with the criminal justice system, that means more people accruing a record which exacerbates the problem of obtaining a job.
“You see a decline in the value of the community . . . people are losing their homes. Renters move in, who tend not to take care of homes like homeowners.”
But the impact goes even deeper than that, say researchers.
“We are still gender-oriented . . . . Males are supposed to be the breadwinners. When they can’t perform . . . stress is created in a household,” said Morehouse’s Hodge. This can lead to high rates of divorce and domestic violence.
According to Professor Barbara Carter, Ph.D., at Spelman College, economically unstable Black men are less likely to enter into formal marriages and create stable families.
“The pattern of high male unemployment helps to promote single-female-headed houses with fewer economic resources. (Women earn less than men in part because the ‘gendered’ jobs they occupy typically pay less.)
“Many Black women simply don’t assume that Black men will be able to support them (even if that is still their ideal), and families often socialize their girls to expect to be economically independent. Other women choose to raise their children alone rather than have an official/legal marriage with an economically unstable man,” noted Carter, who is in the Anthropology and Sociology Department at Spelman.
All three researchers also talk about the impact on the psyche of unemployed Blacks, particularly males.
“What you see around you, impacts how you think, and impacts your way of thinking about the world. It creates this cycle that can perpetuate itself; that can be generational and that can be problematic,” said Hodge. “Cornel West, I think, talked about this sense of community hopelessness. And when he talked about that, he talked about how unemployment, no jobs, a low graduation rate and all types of things like this perpetuate this sense of learned hopelessness. And so once that happens, it’s very difficult to pull a community out of that downward cycle.”
And because Black America has not escaped the ethos of work concept that permeates the national psyche, Hodge adds, lack of employment impacts one’s emotional state.
“I’m not going to say that people have less respect, but we react how we are reacted to. When larger society does not treat you well, there is an attitude not so much of lack of respect but of ‘I’ll get mine the only way I can get mine.’”
Young believes the impact is different at the various economic levels.
Many in the lower socioeconomic levels, who live and operate in communities where joblessness is abundant, are often wholly divorced from work and work opportunities.
“For those in the stable working class, they are in a precarious category,” Young said. “There is a lack of comfort and security at work. At one point you focused on how to have your children advance beyond your status, but now the Black middle class has abandoned that notion. Instead now they are struggling to figure out how to retire.”
According to the Los Angeles UCLA Black Worker Center, the demographic of the working class is probably the most invisible in the African American community, and that creates problems when it comes to looking at issues of work and jobs.
For the Black professional class, there is a gender imbalance, which is particularly troubling for women who are interested in connecting in marriage with someone of their same race.
Young also noted that for the professional class, there is a sense of isolation, and that for the lower income there is an emerging concern about how to make sense of a work world that is increasingly more technology-based.
The University of Michigan professor also noted another future impact that is beginning to manifest itself—the “monitoring” of a growing mass of older African Americans who have never been connected to stable employment and now must be incorporated into the conversation about social security, Medicaid and healthcare.
While the state of unemployment in the African American community is extremely challenging, researchers retain their optimism for the future in part because of the past resiliency and creativity of the African American community. That includes “hustling” (whether legitimately or illicitly) to bring in money. They are also optimistic because of actions that new generations of Blacks are taking.
One of those sets of actions is what Hodge sees among the young college students he observes.
“The Black male students I see have a hustle they are trying to create while they are in school. They set up entrepreneurship opportunities for themselves and their colleagues. They do things to promote themselves.”
And they are doing this in large part by harnessing the power of technology, adds Hodge. Their goals, like those of Black entrepreneurs of the past are to give back to the community, partially in the guise of jobs.
On the other end of the spectrum—the mass worker side—are organizations like the Los Angeles UCLA Black Workers Center, which Pitts said are doing much like the legendary A. Phillip Randolph: helping to empower Black workers as a group.
“A. Philip Randolph and the movement of sleeping car porters not only built power—meaning developing leaders such as Ed Nixon who could stand up to employers and make the demands of workers and who knew their individual fate were linked to the collective—but Randolph also was a strategist and used research and analysis to understand the political landscape and the dynamics of the power that he was up against. He made sure that the porters understood the railroad industry and how it worked; that they understood the boss, his values and motivation; he explored what political tools he had to fight with and those that were needed; he knew the political landscape of the Black community and the labor movement and where they were willing to go. All of that led to their success,” said Lola Smallwood-Cuevas of the UCLA Black Worker Center.
“Today Black workers are on their own and in the dark, like so many American workers, and they are struggling in a complex economy overlaid with enormous systems of oppression and greed,” continued Smallwood-Cuevas. “At the Black Worker Center, we believe the organization and development of worker/leaders, community strategic alliances, and smart analysis, strategies as well as an agenda out of the grassroots is what is needed.”
Researchers also believe that what is needed is to take the conversation about Black unemployment well beyond job training and creation and deep into an understanding of the future world of work as well as how to meaningfully connect youth and adults (including the formerly incarcerated) to this new and ever-changing employment landscape.
The Black Worker Center, also believes the discussion needs to include looking at the labor market and repairing the structural policies and procedures that facilitate creation of “bad” jobs and employment inequities. •