Black workers’ crisis may linger after upturn

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By Allison Linn, Senior writer, msnbc.com

OAKLAND, Calif. – The recession has compounded a decades-long problem for black workers, who began the downturn facing a far higher jobless rate than the general population and have fared worse since.

Now experts are worried that many blacks will remain in crisis even as the economy begins to recover, largely because the recession has eliminated so many working-class jobs in sectors like manufacturing and retail that are likely to come back slowly, if at all.

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“Across the board right now the job prospects are slim, but for blacks even more so than average,” said Algernon Austin, director of the program on race, ethnicity and the economy at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on issues affecting lower to middle-income workers.

Tariq Mustafa can relate. Mustafa, 30, has been looking for work since March, when he completed a temporary retail job after he was laid off from a hotel position. He estimates he has filed 100 online job applicationsas well as spending months pounding the pavement and visiting potential employers in person.

He said he occasionally feels that race plays a role in his inability to get a job, especially in this tight job market.

“Sometimes you come in and you ask for an application, and you know they’re hiring because it was on the Internet, and they’ll say, you know, ‘No, we’re not hiring,’ ” he said. “It’s just, it’s that vibe, just how people treat you.”

The numbers illustrate the sheer depth of the problem black workers are facing. For all the gains that black workers have made over the past 20 years, everywhere from corporate boardrooms to the White House, there remains a persistent gap between black and white unemployment rates.

Since the recession began in December 2007, the national unemployment rate has gone from 4.9 percent to 10.2 percent, while the the black unemployment rate has jumped from 8.9 percent to 15.7 percent, according to government figures.

In addition, blacks have been more likely to drop out of the labor force altogether as many have become so discouraged about job prospects that they have stopped looking for work.

The labor force participation rate for blacks has fallen from 63.4 percent of adults in December 2007 to 61.7 percent as of October. The overall labor force participation rate in the same period has fallen from 66 percent to 65.1 percent, the lowest level since 1986.

Black workers also are likely to take longer to find a new job. In 2008 blacks made up 19.3 percent of the total unemployed population but represented 25.4 percent of the people who had been unemployed for six months or longer, according to the National Employment Law Project.

In good times and bad, blacks face harsher employment prospects for many reasons, including a higher likelihood of past incarceration or homelessness, and less access to a network of friends and relatives who might have job leads. Discrimination, while less overt than in years past, still plays a role, experts say.

“The American labor market is less friendly to black workers than to white workers, and it has been for all of U.S. history,” Austin said.

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