His week had begun with a graduation ceremony, a standing ovation and a walk across the stage to meet the president of the United States. Kenneth Roberson was a top-ranked student at the high school President Obama had selected as the country’s most “inspiring,” and the president had extended his hand and asked Roberson what he planned to do next. The 18-year-old thought back to his mother’s advice about making first impressions: Stand tall. Make eye contact. Smile. Be confident.
“Sir, I’m going to get a job and go to college,” Roberson told the president.
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.”
Few teenagers had done more during the past four years to better their odds, and Roberson planned to carry his diploma and transcript with him while he searched. He had played varsity football and basketball, starred in the school band, and worked as a mentor for the Boys and Girls Club. He had helped his high school win the national education reform contest that brought Obama to graduation, where the president had stood on stage and assured the 155 graduates, “I couldn’t be more confident about your futures.”
“So,” Roberson wondered now, still standing in the school parking lot, “if I can’t get a job, then who can?”
He had planned to get serious about his job search on the first day of summer break, a Saturday, and he woke up at 10 and walked into the living room wearing gym shorts and slippers. His mother, Shonya Pernell, was sitting on the couch and watching TV. During the past few months, she had watched him fill out job applications at the kitchen table and obsess over the neatness of his handwriting. She knew how badly he wanted a job.
“Morning,” she said. “Are you still planning on looking today?”
“Yes, ma’am, I think I will,” he said.
“Then why don’t you go get changed?” she said, eyeing her son’s pajamas.
Roberson went to his room in search of an outfit, and Pernell turned back to the TV. Saturday was her only day off. She worked a split shift driving a city bus, leaving the house at 5 a.m., napping for a few hours around noon and then driving again until 7:30 at night. The job exhausted her, but she had been doing it for 13 years and her salary had increased to almost $40,000. “I’m not afraid of hard work,” she said.
She had given birth to Roberson when she herself was a student at Booker T. Washington — a 10th-grader who brought her baby to the school day care, went to class and then worked evenings at Pizza Hut. She graduated and eventually saved enough money to move the family out of public housing near the high school. Now they live in a small house on a dead-end road, where they share one bathroom and the kitchen doubles as a laundry room and tripled as an office. But the neighborhood is safe and the mortgage affordable. “We’re making it,” she said.
Her daily bus route up and down Union Avenue provides a glimpse into the lives of all those who weren’t — people who have slipped into the city’s growing economic underclass: the day laborers with their two-gallon water jugs who board at 6 a.m.; the job seekers heading downtown in their hopeful shirts and ties; the loud-mouthed teenagers frustrated by their place in the 45 percent; the drunks and the homeless who ride in circles all day, sapped of ambition, looking passively out the window.
To make sure her children graduated from high school, Pernell supervised their homework and enforced a 9 o’clock bedtime. Nobody in the family had ever gone to college, and she was worried about the finances. She needed all of her savings to fix the stalling engine on her 1998 Lincoln Navigator. Roberson’s tuition at UTC will be $13,000; his scholarships total at least $9,000. All Pernell knew was that they would be required to pay the remaining amount somehow, whatever it ending up being, whenever it came due.
Now Roberson walked back into the living room and stood in front of the TV. “How do I look?” he asked. He wore dark jeans and an ironed shirt with sleeves long enough to cover the tattoos on his biceps. His mother nodded in approval.
“You look like a pretty good hire to me,” she said. “Where are you headed?”
“I guess I’ll start with the fast-food places,” he said.
Pernell reached into her pocket and handed him the keys to her truck. “Remember,” she said, “it’s all about that first impression.”
Roberson drove down Elvis Presley Boulevard once without stopping to survey the possibilities, counting 16 fast-food restaurants before making a U-turn to begin his search. “Look at all these little places,” he said. “Some of them have to be hiring.” He pulled into the parking lot of Dairy Queen and walked inside. The store was empty. A middle-aged white man stood behind the counter cleaning an ice cream scoop. He wore glasses and a name tag that read “Pete.”
“How can I help you?” he asked, and Roberson smiled and walked up to the counter.
Make eye contact. Stand tall. Grip strong.
“Hi, sir,” he said. “I’m looking for a job.”
“We’re not hiring right now,” Pete said, still cleaning the scoop. The walls around him were painted pink and blue. A neon sign above the counter read “Celebrate!” Pete shrugged. “I guess it might be a good idea to fill out an application that we could keep on file,” he said.
“Okay,” Roberson said. “I’ll do that.”
He took the two-page application to a table and sat down. The restaurant was silent except for the hum of a refrigerator in the stockroom. He leaned over the paper and started printing his answers.
Starting salary: “7.25,” the minimum wage.
Date available: “Today.”
Education level: “High School graduate.”
Total hours desired each week: “50.”
Hours available. Roberson studied the question for a second, stood up and walked to the front door, where Dairy Queen displayed its daily schedule. The store opened at 9 a.m. and closed between 9 p.m. and midnight, depending on the day of the week. Roberson walked back to the table. Hours available: “Every day, from 9 a.m. until close.”
He handed the application to Pete, who thanked him and placed it in a drawer near the register, and Roberson drove two blocks to a McDonald’s. He waited for 10 minutes in line with people ordering lunch before reaching the counter, and then the manager guided him to a yellow computer marked “Apply Here.” The screen was frozen. “It does that,” the manager said. “Just give it three minutes.”
Roberson thanked him and sat down, feeling encouraged. Any place that had a special computer for job seekers must be hiring, he thought. He stared at the frozen screen for three minutes, then five, then seven. In the background, a young woman repeated her greeting at the drive-through window: “It’s a great day at McDonald’s. How can we help you?” He waited another minute. The screen was still frozen. “This is crazy,” he said, and he stood up and left.
Next he drove to Krispy Kreme, which had finished its hiring for the summer, and Burger King, which no longer kept applications in the store, and Pizza Hut, and Wendy’s, and Taco Bell.
By the time he walked into Subway, Roberson had been job searching for almost three hours. He could remember seeing only two black teenagers across the counters. Even on a grimy commercial strip with little but minimum-wage jobs, most of the workers were older, or whiter, or women. Blacks were three times as likely as whites to face unemployment in Memphis; teenagers were four times as likely as adults. The woman working at Subway was Roberson’s mother’s age, and he made his way to the counter. “Hello, ma’am,” he said. “I’m looking for a job.”
“We are accepting applications,” she said. “There is a stack of them over there against the wall.”
“Does that mean you are hiring?”
“We are accepting applications.”
“But are you hiring at this store, right now?”
“Not that I’m aware of, no. Not at this time.”
Roberson thanked her, walked past the applications without pausing and left the store. “This is a waste of time,” he said. It was his first day of summer. His girlfriend had been calling, and so had his friends. He thought that maybe an old connection from the Boys and Girls Club would hire him later to be a counselor at a summer camp. The truck was running on empty. He was done wasting gas on this.
He pulled the Navigator back onto Elvis Presley Boulevard, turned up the radio and rolled down the windows. He called his mom to tell her he was coming home. “I’ll be back in 10 minutes,” he said. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a Krystal burger shop, with a red logo and a sign out front that read “Can you take the heat?” He swung the wheel into the parking lot, walked into the store and headed for the counter.
Stand tall. Be confident.
Here came another first impression for a black teenager looking for work, and maybe this would be the one that stuck.