Black Americans saw big improvements in employment and earnings in 2019. The employment-population ratio for blacks of prime working age (25 to 54 years) rose from 75.1% to 77.2% over the course of the year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the black unemployment rate hit a new record low of 5.4% in August. The weekly earnings of black full-time workers rose 4.3%, after adjusting for inflation.
On Martin Luther King Jr. day, more than 55 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act—a landmark civil rights and labor law that banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin—these improvements are something to celebrate. But there are also enduring labor market disparities that show we have a long way to go.
The unemployment rate for blacks (5.9% according to the most recent data from December 2019) is still far higher than that for whites (just 3.2%). Full-time white workers earn $376 per week, on average; blacks about 22% less at just $294. Even among workers under the age of 55 who have lived their entire lives in a post-Civil Rights Act era, a full 86% said in ZipRecruiter’s recent diversity survey that they had experienced racial discrimination in the workplace.
Another barrier preventing blacks from enjoying the equal labor market opportunities Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned is large and enduring differences in educational outcomes, driven by racial differences in poverty. For example, only 38% of black college students graduate within six years, compared with 62% of whites.
Another stubborn difference quickly becomes obvious when one looks at employment by industry broken down by race. Blacks tend to be vastly overrepresented in low-paying, routine jobs that are likely to be disrupted by new technologies (such as bus service, taxi service, and animal processing) and vastly underrepresented in high-paying occupations that are projected to grow (such as computer systems design, scientific research, and engineering).
MLK Day, then, is both a time to celebrate recent labor market gains and to contemplate their precariousness. May 2020 be a year for individual workers, employers, educational institutions and the government to build on recent gains and tackle remaining barriers to equal opportunity in the workplace.