After the US Department of Labor released employment statistics for the month of April earlier this month, an editor in our New York bureau asked what stood out to me.
Like most American labour reporters, I was struck by how few jobs were created last month and how the report amplified anecdotal claims of a worker shortage. I was so focused on the low numbers of people hired to work in leisure and hospitality that I never responded to the editor.
But along with everyone else I had overlooked a figure that was more concerning — unemployment among black Americans rose to 9.7 per cent, even while the aggregate jobless rate was 6.1 per cent. For whites, that rate was 5.3 per cent.
In the year since George Floyd was murdered, America has re-evaluated discriminatory practices in the workplace and policing, in housing and healthcare policies, and even in infrastructure repairs. But I wonder whether those changes — while crucial — can meaningfully improve the lives of black people if economic reform are not prioritised too.
Unemployment among black Americans is almost always double that of whites, a phenomenon that has been attributed to disparities in educational opportunities and social networks, as well as workplace discrimination. Historically, the two figures tend to at least move in the same direction.
When the Covid crisis struck more than a year ago, black Americans had just begun to benefit from a decade-long bull market. The health crisis then seemed to target their communities, shutting down the sectors where their jobs are heavily concentrated, including restaurants and retail, and killing them at disproportionately high rates.
It remains to be seen if the United States’ burgeoning recovery will target black Americans too, given how their economic needs tend to be ignored.
White America began to emerge from the 2008 financial crisis in 2012, but black America faced double-digit unemployment for years after. Some economists blame the Treasury department for the two-tiered recovery, saying it allowed Wall Street’s fears of inflation to push it into raising rates before disadvantaged workers could be pulled back into the labour force.
Others say the sluggish recovery is yet another symptom of America’s centuries-long neglect of black people’s economic needs.
Shortly after the United States freed enslaved black people in 1865, it promised to give them each “40 acres and a mule” to ensure their economic freedom too (the mules would have been loans). That never materialised. Instead the system of sharecropping emerged, which kept the newly freed people economically dependent on their former masters.
“I don’t think the black community ever recovered from slavery,” says Trahern Crews, an organiser with Black Lives Matter Minnesota.
Crews says the government owes black Americans reparations for centuries of harm in the form of direct payments to the descendants of slaves and investment in schools and healthcare organisations that serve black communities, similar to the $1.6bn the United States paid to Japanese Americans who were interned during the second world war.
Advocates say reparations are the best way to close the growing wealth gap between black and white families in America. Such policies are highly controversial but have gained public support in recent years. A bill to establish a federal commission to explore the concept was approved by the House Judiciary Committee in April.
Ultimately, employment opportunity is the top issue for black Americans, according to Rashad Robinson, president of the activist organisation Color of Change. “When we ask people what is most important they talk about jobs, and they talk about pay and they talk about being able to have a quality standard of life,” he says.
The Biden administration says it will not allow its Covid recovery plan to play out like the last one, and pledged to base its economic targets on the black unemployment rate instead of the aggregate one.
“No economic recovery can be complete if some communities are left behind,” says Janelle Jones, the Labor Department’s chief economist.