Now it was Friday afternoon, four days later, and Roberson idled with a group of fellow graduates in the empty parking lot of Booker T. Washington High, a public school surrounded by the housing projects of South Memphis. The president was gone. The commemorative banner had been packed away into storage. A school security guard had locked the main entrance. All that was left were the littered remains of green-and-white confetti on the asphalt and a shared uncertainty about what to do next.
“I need a damn job, man,” said Chris Dean, 18. “Any of y’all got something?”
“Nah,” said one.
“Nah,” said another.
“I’m still trying to get hooked up at McDonald’s,” said a third.
The group turned to Roberson, who had always been the first of his friends to get everything. He had graduated in the top five in the class and won a partial scholarship to college. He hoped to earn at least $2,000 over the summer to pay for school and buy a car that would get him there. But now, in the parking lot, he was another teenager shaking his head.
“I’m looking,” he said.
After Obama, four congressmen and a governor came here last week to congratulate these students for turning around an all-black, inner-city school and “defying the odds,” Roberson and his friends graduated into a job market where their odds are bleaker still. Even as the economy continues to improve for some, the percentage of black men with jobs last month dropped to its lowest point in 40 years. The situation is worse for teenagers, worse again in the South and worst of all in late May as graduates swell the job market.
The result for black men ages 16 to 19 is a fate that now resembles a coin toss. Of those seeking work, 54.6 percent find jobs. More than 45 percent do not.
Forty-five percent. It is a number five times the general unemployment rate and almost double the rate for teens. Economists believe that recessions are always harshest on the most vulnerable workers, who are the first to lose their jobs and the last to be rehired, and young black men have long been considered most vulnerable of all. The contributing reasons — which experts say range from education to transportation to systemic racism — are now the topic of abstract debates in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
For Roberson, the implications of 45 percent are more immediate and more personal. It means a 45 percent chance he will have to borrow money for school or risk forgoing his partial scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; a 45 percent chance that he will be stuck without a car in a house with his mother and four siblings, sleeping on a futon in the room he shares with his brother; a 45 percent chance that he will go “crazy or something,” he said, “because I hate sitting in the house and having that feeling of just waiting around and being worthless.”