A Closer Look at Black Unemployment Using Ancestry Data

28 Jun 2016 | Sahelit Bahiru
A Closer Look at Black Unemployment Using Ancestry Data

The Black population in the United States historically faced widespread discrimination in the labor market, and studies reveal that employers continue to discriminate on the basis of race. Racial bias as well as other structural and institutional barriers are reflected in the Black unemployment rate, which is consistently about double the rate for Whites. However, disaggregating such socioeconomic indicator data shows that this is not true of every subgroup within this population. As with other racial/ethnic groups in the U.S., the Black population is quite diverse with varying levels of success in the labor market. Examining the diversity of experiences within the Black community in the United States can provide a better understanding of barriers to unemployment.

This analysis explores the variation in the unemployment rate within the Black population. On May 23, PolicyLink and the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity added new ancestry breakdowns to six indicators in the National Equity Atlas. This is the fifth in a series of analyses of the new data.

The unemployment rates reported in the Atlas for 2012 reflect a five-year average of the American Community Survey (ACS) microdata, which reflect the state of the U.S. job market at the height of the recession (and thus are higher than today’s rates for all groups). The Black population had the highest unemployment rate at 13 percent, compared to the national average of 8 percent. Disaggregating the data reveals that some subgroups had unemployment rates more comparable to the national average.

Blacks of North and Sub-Saharan African Ancestry Have the Lowest Rates among the Black Population

At 9 and 11 percent respectively, Blacks of North and Sub-Saharan African ancestry have the lowest rates of unemployment within the Black population. Both of these groups are predominantly comprised of immigrant communities. Although those figures appear to be low relative to the overall Black average, they still are above the national average of 8 percent.

But even within the Sub-Saharan population, rates vary widely, from as low as 6 percent for Blacks of Kenyan ancestry to as high as 21 percent for Blacks of Somalian ancestry. These two neighboring countries in the horn of Africa ironically represent each end of the spectrum of unemployment rates for Blacks in America. Blacks of Nigerian and Ethiopian/Eritrean ancestry – the two largest subgroups of Sub-Saharan immigrants residing in the U.S. — both have unemployment rates of 9 percent, well below the average for all Blacks in the U.S.

Blacks of North and Sub-Saharan African Ancestry Have Higher Levels of Education

As with unemployment, the various Black subgroups differ in levels of educational attainment. Black immigrants tend to have higher levels of education: Among Black immigrants in the U.S., 29 percent reported having a BA or higher, compared with 18 percent for U.S.-born Blacks. Some Black communities have much higher education levels. For instance, 63 percent Blacks of Nigerian ancestry, 49 percent Blacks of Egyptian ancestry, 47 percent Blacks of Kenyan ancestry indicated they have a BA or higher, compared with 34 percent of Whites.


A Closer Look at Unemployment in the Nigerian Community

Blacks of Nigerian ancestry, 63 percent of whom are immigrants, represent the largest Sub-Saharan subgroup in the U.S. The New York, Houston, and Washington, DC metro areas have the largest populations of Nigerians in the country, and together account for 34 percent of all Nigerians living in America.

As illustrated in the chart above, the unemployment rate for Blacks of Nigerian ancestry is 9 percent in New York, 11 percent in Houston, and 8 percent in Washington, D.C. By contrast, unemployment among the African American subgroup is 13 percent in New York, 10 percent in Houston, and 9 percent in Washington, D.C. The trend in the greater Houston metro area is not consistent with the rest - the African American/Other Black subgroup has lower unemployment rates when compared to Blacks of Nigerian ancestry in that region. When looking at factors such as education levels for these two subgroups in the Houston area, the data shows the opposite of what we would expect.  Blacks of Nigerian ancestry still have a greater number of their population with a B.A or higher at 66 percent, when compared to only 22 percent for African American/Other Blacks in that region.

Furthermore, although both subgroups have higher unemployment rates when compared to the overall unemployment rates in these regions — 8 percent in New York, 6 percent in Houston, and 6 percent in Washington, D.C. — the gap is wider for the African American/Other Black subgroup in two of the three cities with the largest concentration of Blacks of Nigerian ancestry.

Solutions to High African American Unemployment

While a combination of factors such as systemic racist policies and widespread employment discrimination have certainly played a part, it is hard to ignore a problem unique to the U.S., a country with the highest levels of incarceration rates that puts a disproportionate amount of able-bodied African American men and women out of the workforce. Moreover, disaggregated data shows that those who indicated to be African American/Other Black represent one of the subgroups that fare the worst when it comes to unemployment rates and education levels, whereas their immigrant counterparts are either doing as well as the national average or in some cases better. This begs the question of what causes this disparity.

Although it is easier to address the skill deficiency part of the puzzle rather than the discrimination piece when explaining rampant unemployment levels in the Black community, a combination of policies and advocacy efforts to address both issues could remedy parts of the problem. Policies that increase workforce development programs for African Americans by itself may not be sufficient as Blacks of the same skill set have a harder time finding a job due to discrimination when compared to their White counterparts. Therefore, pairing workforce development programs with aggressive job placement programs might do a better job of increasing the chances of employment. Additionally, while it is difficult to change the explicit and implicit biases of employers towards Black applicants, implementing subsidy programs that would reward employers to hire qualified members of the Black community may also increase the chances of employment for Blacks.

Lastly, unless drastic measures are taken to decrease the prolific rates of mass incarceration in the U.S. that has disproportionately impacted the African American community and to implement policies such as Ban the Box that would increase the employment chances of formerly incarcerated individuals, no amounts of job training and job placement programs will truly address the issue of high unemployment rates in the African American community.