When the government released the unemployment numbers for December 2012 last Friday, unemployment for African-Americans had risen, from 13.2% to 14%. For African-Americans, unemployment has remained rather high throughout the stubborn economic recovery of the past several years. Although there has been a steady decline in overall unemployment, the improved statistics do not seem to favor African-Americans. But why is this?
There are two institutional curtains that help explain this perpetual problem: barriers to educational access, and poor environment maintenance. Both of these have prevented African-Americans from abundant and regular opportunities to fight unemployment for more than a century. Today, our schools are just as (or even more) segregated as they were when the Supreme Court officially desegregated them with their Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Students who hail from low-income, low-educational backgrounds are more likely to be African-American and less likely to attend and graduate from college. Also, students who achieve high marks in low-income schools are less likely to attend college, compared to similar students who attend high-income schools. Traditionally, African-Americans are more likely to be on the “losing” end of the growing educational gap between the affluent and the non-affluent.
Excluding the small percentage of professional athletes and entertainers, education is arguably the most important factor for African-Americans to fight unemployment. And it is not just attending school and graduating. The environment of learning spurs healthy competition and discussion about the first part of starting a career: finding a job that will propel you towards the desired career path. When this is removed from the radar of African-Americans, it is not a surprise when many job opportunities, especially high-paying and high-profile, remain and stay out of reach.
In areas where there are traditionally large African-American densities, the quality of food, the quality of living, and community opportunities are much lower compared to areas where the densities are small. You aren’t going to find quality supermarkets, plentiful affordable and adequate housing units, and state-of-the-art recreational facilities in areas where African-Americans traditionally populate. But you will find them in areas where they do not. These three entities ensure staying job opportunities as well as healthy real estate, residential, and commercial markets.
Grocery stores alone generate enough traffic that attracts other complementary stores and services, such as banks, pharmacies, gyms, and restaurants. They can act as a nucleus for economic development in communities. For example, an examination of the first full-service supermarket located in New York’s Harlem neighborhood four years after its opening found that the store was largely responsible with catalyzing the resurgence of the neighborhood. The examination also found that the store apportioned the same amount of space to a similar variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat as typical suburban supermarkets at similar prices. A large supermarket in each inner-city neighborhood area would provide for more economic development than dozens of smaller stores without the quality of selection of food.
These two curtains were amplified by the recession, when the wealth gap between African-American and white families doubled. The economic downturn sent many well-qualified and established individuals into the unemployment arena, forcing them to take jobs that they would not normally and are traditionally over qualified for. And let’s not even mention the mortgage crisis. With fewer opportunities to pursue education and depreciating community conditions, it is hard to imagine how African-Americans will fight unemployment in the long run.
Simply creating more jobs for the economy will not decrease unemployment for African-Americans. It must be done in a strategic fashion so that communities as a whole are given a chance to improve, not just the diamond-in-the-rough who makes it to the NBA or lands a recording deal.