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The Rise in Black Unemployment Is about More Than Race

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Job seekers fill out employment forms at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. career fair held by the New York State department of Labor in New York, in 2012. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters) Bridging the economic gap between black and white workers starts with bridging the achievement gap in K–12 education.

Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its disappointing monthly jobs report, which showed that the economy had added only 250,000 jobs in August, far fewer than the 750,000 expected. While the overall unemployment rate dropped to 5.2 percent from the previous 5.4 percent, the unemployment rate for black Americans was also a lowlight, rising from 8.2 percent to 8.8 percent while the unemployment rate for whites dropped from 4.8 percent to 4.5 percent.

The latter disparity led AFL-CIO chief economist William Spriggs to argue that the primary cause of rising black unemployment is discrimination. Spriggs noted that the unemployment rate among black workers who had attained associate degrees (6.9 percent) exceeded the 5.8 percent unemployment rate among white high-school dropouts. Moreover, the unemployment rate for those of all races with less than a high-school diploma was 7 percent, while the unemployment rate for blacks with a high-school diploma and no college degree was 10 percent. This led Spriggs to argue that employers are clearly “passing over Black workers.”

I would respectfully disagree with Spriggs. While there is certainly some racial discrimination in the jobs market, the primary factor inhibiting higher economic attainment within the black population is the failure of urban public-school districts to adequately prepare black students for a four-year college or, alternatively, other post-secondary education such as technical or vocational training. Historically, whites of all economic classes have received better educations than blacks, so until we achieve parity in educational opportunities for all students, we shouldn’t expect to see a statistical trend toward equal levels of employment.

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, nearly 60 years ago, attributing economic disparities between blacks and whites primarily to racism would have been warranted. But in 2021, such a knee-jerk response is intellectually lazy at

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