Looking at the latest unemployment numbers, conspiracy theorists might postulate that our current economic crisis has a racial dimension, tilting against blacks and especially black males. The latest seasonally adjusted U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment numbers reveal that blacks have an unemployment rate of 13.3 percent compared to 7.9 percent for whites. For black men over nineteen years of age, the data are even worse: 15.4 percent compared to 8 percent for white males. These gaps represent a terrible cost in lost potential, and require action on multiple fronts. Critical to progress on this problem are a reform of welfare policies in tandem with a renewal of an ethic of educational achievement.
High black unemployment has more to do with lags in educational attainment and skill acquisition than with racism. In tight economic seasons, employers are less able to absorb the cost of less productive labor as demand for products and services decreases. Low-skilled laborers are often among the first to be laid off and have a more difficult time finding new employment opportunities. Having few skills disproportionately affects African-American males in an American economy characterized by increasing specialization and widespread illegal immigration.
To make matters worse, black males are approaching a high school drop out rate of 50 percent. Not having basic education and a needed skill in an economy in the midst of a major correction increases the chance of unemployment. Currently, those with no high school diplomas are experiencing a 12.6 percent unemployment rate. Those with a high school diplomas or college degrees see rates at 8.3 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively.
Such figures have human faces. The experience of twenty-one year-old Jimmie Jackson is a good example of the struggles many black men without employable skills currently confront. Even with a high school diploma, Jackson hasn’t worked in three years and has no real job experience other than as a teenager in retail and fast-food industries. To make matters worse, Jackson lives in Michigan, which suffers from the highest seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in America at 12.6 percent.
Jackson says that the most difficult part about his failed three-year job search is “not getting a call back.” He notes that, as a black man, he is at an additional disadvantage because of stigmas and stereotypes. “Black men have a bad rep,” Jackson says about living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Yet Jackson says he regrets playing into the stereotypes himself, conceding that he’s not surprised that employers shy away from a candidate who is “all tatted up.” “If I was white,” he says, “I’d be afraid to hire some black dude with tattoos all over his body too.” An additional frustration for Jackson is that he seeks to change his appearance and presentation but does not have the money to do so. “You can’t just go buy a suit if you don’t have any money.”
The bleak stories behind these unemployment numbers remind us of the hard consequences of remaining in low-skill sectors for too long, the importance of graduating from high school, and the importance of continuing education afterward. One’s chances of contributing to the common good are enhanced by pursuing such education. Encouraging success in this area depends in large measure on cultivating a virtuous culture of self-betterment, an aim frustrated by government welfare.
Sadly, because of America’s exploding government program menu, the virtue of “getting an education” has all but been eliminated in low-income black neighborhoods. Before President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty programs, African American parents, grandparents, pastors, teachers, and coaches emphasized to their charges—regardless of their social class—the importance of “getting an education.” Learning and training have always been stressed in black communities as a prerequisite for living better than the previous generation.
Before government promised to meet one’s every need, and because of previous experiences with the oppressive potential of government, black children regularly heard from our elders that the key to living beyond subsistence was acquiring as much education as we possibly could. A good education creates opportunities and options. It is no accident that the civil-rights movement was inaugurated with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the unanimous decision ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
For young men like Jackson, currently living on “public assistance,” the incentives for self-improvement continue to be sabotaged by the promises of government programs. Jackson says that many of his friends have simply resigned themselves to nihilism: a steady life of drug use, run-ins with the police, and living on a government check. This incentive system undermines the culture of achievement that blacks successfully built in times past. Why work hard in school or work if government’s going to take care of you anyway?
Moving forward, low-income black communities need to be liberated from the prisons of government programs, recover a sense of personal dignity, and recapture the educational mores that have served as catalyst for fulfilling and productive lives.