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September 21, 2019

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Boasts about black unemployment rate ring hollow amid new findings

President Donald Trump often cites the African-American unemployment rate as one of his key accomplishments. Confoundingly, he even made the boast in a tweet last week chiding soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe over her pledge not to accept an invitation to visit the White House.

But new research shows that contrary to Trump’s statements, unemployment among black workers is actually at recession-era levels, and in some cases even higher.

In a report last week, the Brookings Institution’s Andre Perry examined unemployment data and Census Bureau survey results to show that joblessness is rampant in black communities. Perry concluded that although economists say the nation is reaching full employment, defined as having more jobs than workers to fill them, blacks are nowhere close to that level.

“The unemployment rate (among African-Americans) is 15.8% in Newark, N.J.,” Perry wrote in the intro to his study. “It’s an alarming 17.4% in Detroit. And in Flint, Mich., more than a quarter of the population is unemployed. If these numbers referred to the white unemployment rate, leaders would be doing everything possible to improve it. But these rates represent black unemployment, and no one is sounding the alarm.”

That should change, because the numbers are distressing. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the overall black unemployment rate at 6.2% in May 2019, Perry argues compellingly that the figure doesn’t tell nearly the whole story.

Perry also shows that not only are African-Americans struggling with overall employment, they face an enormous gap in joblessness compared with whites.

In the black-majority cities of Atlanta and New Orleans, for example, unemployment is five times higher among blacks than whites — 11.5% compared with 2.5% in Atlanta, and 11.3% compared with 2.3% in New Orleans. Perry notes that gaps of at least 3.9% exist in all 10 of the nation’s largest black-majority cities.

Zooming out and looking at the nation’s 28 black-majority cities with at least 65,000 residents, Perry found that 25 had higher unemployment among blacks than whites.

“The average black unemployment rate among these cities is 12.11%, a far cry from the 3.6% (overall unemployment rate) in the May jobs report,” Perry wrote.

The report doesn’t get into the reasons behind the gap. It notes, however, that the gap has existed for decades, suggesting that historical reasons apply. Among those are racial biases among employers, as well as institutionalized racist policies that have left blacks lagging in education, professional development and so forth.

Perry says the situation calls for discussions about how to eliminate the disparities in unemployment and improve the economic health of cities and neighborhoods, not self-patting on the back.

“Black unemployment can no longer be considered an afterthought of full employment,” he writes. “We shouldn’t have to wait for white Americans to be in a recession to make an economy work for everyone.”

Perry’s name may be familiar to Las Vegas residents, as he’s visited Brookings Mountain West at UNLV several times to teach and give community presentations.

His full report is available at It should be required reading for public leaders.