Jerry L. Williamson by most descriptions would be considered a man on the way up.
He is a 28-year-old college fraternity man with an interest in vintage BMWs, a masters degree in urban and regional planning and experience in several professional jobs in Washington and New York.
But Williamson is black. And unlike many of his upwardly mobile white counterparts with similar degrees and experience, Williamson has been unable to find work for six months -- a phenomenon two local research groups suggest can be blamed in part on lingering discrimination in Washington.
The Washington Urban League, which conducted a still-unpublished survey done for the D.C. Department of Employment Services, said it found that 42 percent of the city's discouraged workers who are black males have either some college education or a college degree. Discouraged workers are those who have ceased looking for a job and who no longer are counted in the unemployment statistics.
In addition, many professionally trained and college-educated blacks may be working in low-level or dead-end jobs that fail to use their skills and education.
A separate study by the Greater Washington Research Center found serious underemployment among college-educated black males. Looking at workers aged 25 to 34, the study found that 57.2 percent of white male college graduates were in executive and professional jobs, compared with 40.5 percent of black male college graduates and 46.3 percent of black women college graduates. In the 35 to 44 age group of people of equal educational attainment, 61.7 percent of white males found jobs at the executive and professional level, compared with 45.9 percent of black males and 55.4 percent of black women.
"The principal fact that emerges from these charts is the striking inability of the younger black male residents of greater Washington with college degrees their emphasis to achieve jobs commensurate with their educations," said the study, conducted for the GWRC by the Grier Partnership, a private consulting firm.
Williamson already knew what the studies documented. "My degrees may say I'm better, but to the system, I'm just unemployed," said Williamson. "I'm no better off than the guy who's uneducated."
Many of the city's jobless are undereducated and largely unskilled, so the high level of unemployment and underemployment of relatively well-educated blacks compounds the problem of joblessness in Washington.
The problem is highlighted by unemployment statistics showing that while the unemployment rate among suburban residents has been about 3 percent in recent months, it has declined only to about 8 percent among D.C. residents.
Although about 70 percent of the District is black, about 90 percent of the unemployed in the city last year were black, according to the District Department of Employment Services.
The Greater Washington Research Center's study said the difficulty college-educated black men have finding good jobs "is not a result of past inequities, but of present practices."
"You generally assume that having some college or college degree a person is employable," said Rodney O'Neal, executive vice president of the Washington Urban League. Although there are other factors at work, O'Neal said, discrimination seems to play a large part in the unemployment of college-educated blacks.
In support of the discrimination claim, O'Neal said that "people are not getting interviews. Jobs are 'not available' although there are announcements about the job."
Williamson and other college-educated blacks interviewed said they have been on job interviews where they were told by personnel managers that they did not want the job they were applying for or were openly stared at by whites in the offices. In other cases, they were told openings had been filled when ads for the same job later appeared in newspapers.
In some cases, the job-seekers noted, they were the only blacks in the offices, and in many cases, resume's sent to employers never were acknowledged.
When it comes to the reasons for this underemployment and unemployment, researchers, employers and the unemployed all point to a variety of other factors besides discrimination that also may play a role -- including training in the wrong fields and a generally tight job market.
"There's absolutely no question discrimination exists," said Roy Blunt, president-elect of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. But he also said that although there are competent, qualified minorities in the District's labor pool, in some cases they may not have the other attributes that employers seek for a particular job.
"Sure it exists," prominent Washington businessman R. Robert Linowes said of discrimination. "I think it's latent, and sometimes I'm not even sure it's intentional. It's been something that's existed, and I'm not even sure we knew it was there."
The Board of Trade has appointed a task force to look into the area's unemployment problems, but it is not focused on the discrimination issue, said Thompson Powers, head of that committee. Powers said that the board has been told by employers that at times people with apparent qualifications "don't have the specific abilities and don't perform up to expectations."
He said there probably is some discrimination involved, but "my own personal feeling is at times people who may have a college degree may not be able to perform at the level of others who have college degrees."
Powers said there may also be some difference in the type of degree unemployed blacks have compared with those of whites who have jobs. For example, white men may major more in engineering and the sciences, "which are more attractive to employers than the degrees black men have."
Linowes said that a barrier to black college-educated applicants is "the very nature of the person being different. There is that latent feeling that I'm sure exists."
Williamson, who has both a bachelor's and a master's degree from Howard University, and other graduates of Howard, a predominately black university, said they believed many employers may see that they are graduates of Howard, assume that they are black and automatically reject their applications.
George Grier, one of the authors of the GWRC report, agreed with Williamson's assessment, although the question was not addressed in his study.
"One thing that was suggested to us was perhaps the black educational institutions are not as highly regarded educationally, and for this reason the graduates of these institutions, their own preparation gets questioned because of the reputation of the institution," Grier said in an interview.
Grier also said that in making hiring decisions, employers probably hire people more like themselves or who they are used to seeing working in a certain position. "If you're used to seing a white male, you'll hire a white male," Grier said.
Although the Grier study said the problem seemed to be concentrated among black men, educated young black women also have problems getting jobs commensurate with their education, the studies said.
Tracy Robinson, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Howard University two years ago, said that until this month, she had only been able to gain employment as a temporary. She has had summer internships with the National Women's Educational Fund and local firms, was a member of Who's Who Among American University and College Students and has volunteered for various organizations.
After about a year of looking for full-time work, Robinson finally landed a good job with a black-owned consultant group.
"Most people don't want to do low-level jobs," Robinson said. "Nobody is happy with a job that makes them feel less than what they are or feel humiliated," she added. "I don't think anyone aspires to a low-level job where they work very hard and are paid very little."
Olga Clegg is a 1984 graduate of the Antioch School of Law with a bachelor's degree in urban regional studies from Indiana State University. She has had several legal internships and other jobs with the Department of Health and Human Services, Urban Law Institute and Small Business Administration, and was a congressional intern for the secretary of the Senate.
Clegg, who took the D.C. bar examination in February, also cannot find full-time work.
Clegg said she initially targeted private industry, but "they're not really hiring professional blacks. You can just tell when a person is looking for a reason not to hire you."