“Originally it was conceived of as a march for jobs.” - Rachelle Horowitz, aide to March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin, in Smithsonian Magazine.
Fifty years after the March on Washington, one of its most important objectives remains an elusive dream for many African Americans: good jobs.
In many ways, the persistence of racial gaps in employment is a mystery given both the optimism after the March and the many legislative and executive changes put in place after 1963. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited job discrimination and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to handle employment grievances. It also prohibited discrimination in education, opening up more educational opportunities for African Americans. In addition, President Johnson issued two executive orders reinforcing the job discrimination ban and encouraging firms contracting with the Federal government to act affirmatively to diversify their labor forces.
And, yet, racial gaps in employment persist.
Black workers fared worse during the Great Recession than white workers
The job losses and persistent unemployment that African Americans experienced during the recent recession is typical of their experiences over the past 50 years. At the beginning of the recession, the unemployment rate was 8.2 percent for black men and 6.4 percent for black women, compared with unemployment rates of 3.5 percent for white men and women.
Over the course of the recession, rates for all four groups rose, with the highest unemployment rate for black men coming in early 2011 when it peaked at 18.4 percent (figure 1). And at the end of 2012, a full three years after the recession officially ended, black unemployment rates remained above the rates whites experienced at the height of the recession. The black-white unemployment ratio—that is the ratio of the black unemployment rate to the white unemployment rate—was higher at the end of the 2007-2012 period than it was when unemployment rates were at their highest.
And when African Americans are unemployed, they remain unemployed longer than whites: a median duration of 27.7 weeks compared with 19.7 weeks for whites in 2011, the latest date for which detailed data by race is available.
Racial earnings gaps are wider between workers with more education
Through Titles II and VI of the Civil Rights Act, policymakers sought to open the doors of quality education to many African Americans. The Act encouraged desegregation and banned discrimination by institutions receiving federal funds, which includes most colleges and universities because they receive funds directly or in the form of student financial aid. These provisions did help African Americans gain access to institutions of higher learning. And they responded by entering and completing college at higher rates than in prior years.
Increased education should lead to better job opportunities—and it has, when comparing the employment and earnings records of higher-educated African Americans to African Americans with lower levels of education. But when African Americans are compared with whites with similar levels of education, gaps appear at every level of education.
- Unemployment rates are higher and the gaps are larger for black men than for black women (figure 2).
- Median earnings are lower for African Americans at every level of education, with the gaps actually wider for those with more education. For example, an African American man with less than a high school education, working a full-time year-round job, earns about 91 percent of what a similarly educated white man earns. But an African American man with a college education only earns about 82 percent of what a white college-educated man earns.
While the ratios are higher for black women compared with white women, the pattern is similar—more education brings a larger racial gap (figure 3).
Many explanations can be offered to account for the remaining gaps, even after adjusting for educational differences. For example, African Americans live in different communities from whites, which could explain some of the differences. They tend to be younger than white workers, on average, and so would have less experience. They could be more affected by the presence of immigrant workers (whose access to U.S. jobs was made easier by the Civil Rights Act of 1965). But we cannot discount lingering vestiges of discrimination—documented by study after study—that still affect hiring and promotion decisions.
So it is still about jobs: more jobs and better jobs.