The economy’s troubling double standard for black men


The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Jewel Samad/Getty Images)

Fifty years ago today, the Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in hiring and education. But for all the opportunities that have been opened to minorities since then, black men still need two more levels of education to have the same chances of landing a job as a white man.

A black man with an associates degree has the same chances -- about 88 percent-- of finding a job as a white high school graduate, according to a recent analysis of employment rates and education for whites and minorities by Young Invincibles, a nonprofit group focusing on the economic issues impacting millennials. Getting a bachelor's degree ups those chances to 93 percent for a black man, the same as a white man who dropped out of college.  "In a lot of ways that proves the saying that black people need to work twice as hard to compete in this country as white people," says Tom Allison, policy and research manager for Young Invincibles and author of the report.

Credit: Young Invincibles
Credit: Young Invincibles

Education helps to close that employment gap, but the differences exist throughout almost every level of education. Not until graduate school does the gap really begin to narrow.

The report showed that even after African Americans find work, they earn less than white men with the same level of education. They are also more likely to get part-time jobs than white men in the same age range. And it isn't just minority men who are struggling to reach the same level of opportunity as their white counterparts. Women also faced a similar, but smaller, employment gap between races.


Credit: Young Invincibles

These sorts of findings aren't new.  As my colleague Michael Fletcher reported last year,  those pay differences haven't changed much in the last five decades. In  2011, blacks made 66 cents for every dollar earned by whites, compared to 55 cents for every dollar earned by whites in 1963.

The latest research does show going to college has a greater impact on the job prospects for minority students than it does for white students. By earning a bachelor's degree, black men increase their chances of landing a job by nearly 20 percentage points when compared to black men with a high school diploma. For white men, those chances only go up by roughly 10 percentage points.

That could help explain a separate study released by the University of Miami earlier this year that showed African American and Hispanic men who did well in high school were more likely to go to college and graduate school than white men with similar GPAs -- which researchers pointed to as a sign that minority students may be more motivated to finish college.

So what happens to black men when they get out of school that makes it so difficult for them to land jobs with equal pay and equal opportunity as their white counterparts? Some of that disparity may be explained by differences in the neighborhoods where blacks and whites are likely to live. Many communities are still highly segregated. The types of college majors students are choosing may also be playing a role in their job prospects.

But other studies show there may be longstanding biases may still be at play. A 2003 study published in the American Journal of Sociology found that black candidates applying for entry-level jobs in Milwaukee were less likely to be called back for an interview than white candidates with criminal records.

What can be done? Allison's group is calling on lawmakers to increase the Pell Grant, which can make college more affordable for low-income families. Young Invincibles is also encouraging schools to make it easier for students from community college students to transfer to four-year colleges. And greater counseling for minority students while they're in high school may increase their chances of going to college, Allison says.

Jonnelle Marte is a reporter covering personal finance. She was previously a writer for MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal.
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