(Editor’s Note: This story is part of a partnership between Next Avenue and Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative on poverty and opportunity.)
As Next Avenue has noted, there are huge wealth and income disparities between blacks and whites in America (average wealth of white families was more than $500,000 higher than African Americans in 2013 and whites in 2015 earned $25.22 an hour, on average, compared with $18.49 for blacks). But what accounts for the huge labor market disparities between blacks and whites, such as an unemployment rate that’s been roughly twice as high for blacks than whites since the 1970s? And what can be done to lessen these disparities?
In its Race, Work and Opportunity in America panel discussion Wednesday, the Aspen Institute brought together four experts to answer those questions; highlights will follow below. The panel was part of the nonpartisan forum’s Working in America series about employment and job quality issues affecting low- and moderate-income American workers.
Meager Amounts in Retirement and Emergency Funds
These workplace questions are especially relevant to blacks in their 50s and 60s who are eager to increase their retirement savings and the amount of money in their emergency funds. The Urban Institute says the average African American family had just $19,000 in retirement accounts in 2013. And a recent Financial Finesse survey found that only 26 percent of African Americans have emergency funds.
“People are delaying retirement, especially in lower-paying jobs, because we haven’t allowed them to accumulate the wealth they need for retirement,” said panelist Debra Plousa Moore, system chief of staff and executive vice president at Carolinas Healthcare System. She is one of the nation’s foremost authorities in diversity and inclusion.
Onus on Employers
The onus, said Don Tomaskovic-Devey, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies workplace inequality, is largely on employers. “The question to ask is not ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ The question we should be asking is: ‘What’s wrong with these firms?’”
Tomaskovic-Devey said that “if you look at racial progress in employment, most of the indicators show there is none since 1980.” What’s needed, he added, is pressure on employers through policy that changes behavior.
“When there is external pressure on firms, like the passage of the Civil Rights Act or the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that’s powerful not simply because they are enacted, but because they change firms’ behavior,” he noted. “When political pressure stops, so does progress.”
Being Intentional About Reducing Racial Inequities
Tomaskovic-Devey said shaming employers who are failing to promote minorities could help improve the situation. “Employers care about their reputation,” he said.
Moore agreed, saying that “reputation means the world to us [employers].” She added: “As employers, we need to develop, advance and accelerate economic mobility. It’s doable if an employer says: ‘This is our workforce. How do we develop it?’”
Employers must be intentional about reducing racial economic disparities, Moore noted. She called for more businesses to offer leadership, diversity and inclusion certificates.
Said panelist Tanya Wallace-Gobern, executive director of the National Black Worker Center Project: “Racism and discrimination is predatory. You can’t assimilate yourself out of it. Until we hold predators accountable, we won’t be able to defuse the situation.”
Role for State and Local Leaders
State and local leaders need to do their part, too, said Tomaskovic-Devey.
“They often get off the hook. The 1980s, in general, had low inequality between black and white public sector employees. Over 30 years, now these employers look a lot like private-sector employers,” he said. “They’ve outsourced all sorts of work to low-wage private sector firms that had been done by their minority communities.”
The outsourcing of those public-sector jobs almost certainly took away those workers’ union status and positions, leading to lower pay and fewer benefits at the jobs they wound up at.
Smaller Social Networks
One reason more blacks don’t move up the economic ladder, Moore said, is they sometimes have smaller social networks through work than whites do.
“Social networks help you aspire throughout your career to roles you find interesting and you feel can lead you to be a middle-class wage earner,” she said. “As an African-American executive, so many people say to me, ‘I want this job. How do I get it?’ But it’s the person in that job who you want to talk to and say, ‘How did you get there?’”
Mentoring and coaching “is something we all can do,” said Wallace-Gobern.
Credentials and Certifications
Another reason for the lack of upward mobility: credentials, especially in fields like health care.
“We found that to get to the middle class and a $65,000 salary, people needed a two-year degree,” said Moore, speaking about her company. “But there are sometimes barriers to academic access, like child care, transportation and a gap in learning abilities.”
A nursing assistant earning $35,000 could become a $65,000 registered nurse by getting that two-year degree, Moore noted.
The Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong
Another panelist, Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, noted that only 18 percent of all jobs in Newark, where his institute is based, are held by local residents. (In Newark, 49 percent of residents are African American; 36 percent are Hispanic.) By contrast, 33 percent of jobs in Baltimore are held by local residents and 45 percent of jobs in New Orleans are.
Newark’s 18 percent rate isn’t so low because of an unwillingness of its residents to work, Haygood noted. And it’s not because Newarkers have criminal convictions preventing them from being hired, or comprise an exceptionally high percentage of people without college degrees. “We found the same incidence of convictions as in most other U.S. cities,” he said. “The percentage of people in Newark with college degrees — one-third — is consistent with the national trend.”
No, Haygood said, the reason so few blacks in Newark are working is “that the system has been designed to produce the kind of results we see.”
Unrealistic Employment Standards
He added: “We create such an exacting standard for employment. If you look at the hardest-to-employ person in a city, struggling with a host of challenges, we make employment seem impossible. The reality is there is a spectrum of employable folks in the city of Newark who are ready to work and could start tomorrow, although some significant workforce training would be necessary.”
How Driver’s Licenses Fit In
One change that could help reduce racial inequities in the workplace may surprise you: helping minorities get driver’s licenses back after losing them because they couldn’t afford to pay their tickets.
Wallace-Gobern said her group’s New Orleans center created a traffic clinic for this purpose, with help from local attorneys, judges and Loyola University. “One member talked about applying for a job but didn’t have access to it because his license was suspended. His traffic tickets equaled $23,000 at the time. Through the traffic clinic, that was reduced to $9! He now has a driver’s license and we think he’ll be successful.”
The New Orleans traffic clinic has a waiting list of 25,000 people. “That’s a challenge, because we don’t have the capacity for all those people,” said Wallace-Gobern.
This story is part of our partnership with Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America, a public media initiative. Major funding is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Ford Foundation.
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