There's a lot of blurring that happens with the Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly jobs report, the splashy release that drives headlines about the unemployment rate and (recently at least) the gains in the job market. One example is that the figures are seasonally adjusted, to offer a comprehensible baseline month-over-month instead of always having to explain that employment always spikes in June and at the end of the year.
It's blurry in a more important way, too. Reporting that unemployment in January was at 5.7 percent (a tick upward from December's figure) tells us a lot about the economy. But the unemployment varies by demographic, which tells us a lot about the economy, too.
Since the government started tracking unemployment data by race, the unemployment rate for black Americans has never been lower than that of white Americans. In fact, it has never been less than 66 percent higher -- i.e. it's never been close. In the newest jobs report, blacks are the only demographic group besides teenagers with an unemployment rate over 10 percent.
You can see the effects of the recession in that graph pretty clearly. But what you might notice if you look closely is that the unemployment rate for Hispanics appears to have dropped more quickly than for blacks.
If you look at the change in the unemployment rate compared to when Obama took office, you can see that unemployment among Hispanics has, in fact, dropped the most. Unemployment among blacks -- always the highest -- has dropped the least.
We can explain that, in part, by looking at how unemployment rates jumped as the recession kicked in. Here's the rate of change compared to the highest rate of unemployment since 2009. The highest point of unemployment for Hispanics was in August 2009, at 13.1 percent. For whites, in November of that year, it was 9.2 percent. (The rate for whites tracks more closely with the overall figure because whites are the largest part of that overall population.)
But the high point in unemployment for black Americans didn't hit until March of 2010, at 16.8 percent. This means this demographic group has had less time to recover from that high. If we shift all of the groups to the same starting point (peak unemployment), you can see that black unemployment is still dropping more slowly relative to the peak, but less dramatically different. In other words, the trajectory is similar; it's just happening a bit later.
There's a lot that can be read into these figures, and a lot that can be over-read into them. We'll simply offer this reminder: The economic recovery doesn't look the same for everybody. Nor, for that matter, does the economy itself.