Federal Jobs Report, MSNBC Story on Black Underemployment Ignore Data on Discrimination

News of improvement in the January jobs report shows that that there is cause for some optimism. The job market appears to be stable, and jobs are being added. Even the rise in unemployment indicates that those who had previously given up looking for work have returned to the labor market. However, there is still cause for concern.

In an MSNBC interview with White House economic adviser Jared Berstein, he replied to a question about the disproportionate rates of unemployment among African Americans by contending that certain areas could use improvement in job creation, such as in construction and other skilled labor. He also suggested that job training programs could benefit black Americans to help reduce their incredibly high unemployment rates.

Bernstein has been a great advocate for labor in America, and has published a raft of important reports on a broad range of labor market issues facing the American workforce, including the essential annual volume on “The State of Working America.” However, in this case, I was struck by the ways in which Bernstein’s assumptions about black unemployment seem thoroughly disconnected from the wealth of sociological research about the ways in which racial practices have a deleterious effect on black employment. His statements suggested that all we need are more jobs and more training programs to help reduce black unemployment and bring it on par with that of other groups and to minimize the existing disparities. But this implies that the only issues facing black Americans looking for work are (a) too few jobs and (b) too little training. This simply isn’t true.

A wealth of research has documented the ways that employer preferences and institutionalized practices create a very different labor market for black workers. Deirdre Royster’s classic book Race and the Invisible Hand meticulously documents that whites use social networks in ways that hoard opportunities. Her research debunks the oft-cited myths that young black men do not want to work, are too demanding, lazy, or unmotivated. Instead, her study of black and white male teachers and students reveals that white teachers were likely to reserve the best leads, jobs, and references for their white students. It’s also important to mention Devah Pager’s groundbreaking and oft-cited research that shows that employers preferred white men with criminal records to equally qualified black graduates with no criminal past. Lest we think these patterns of employment discrimination happen only to men, Ivy Ken has shown that white employers often stereotype working-class black women according to “that single mother element,” where they assume (often without evidence) that black women workers are unwed parents who will be unreliable workers.

More training and more jobs won’t address these problems. And ignoring them continues a disturbing trend of refusing to acknowledge the ways that race fundamentally shapes myriad aspects of social life. But as always, this type of selective perception has very dangerous consequences for black Americans whose livelihood and economic stability remain insecure.

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