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Where are the future jobs for blacks?

Michael Lawson | 3/14/2012, 8:35 a.m.

Benita Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in public administration. She recently moved to a new city to take her first full-time career position: an entry-level job at a government housing agency. She is 52.

Johnson, who is African American, says she has been working off and on since she was 14. She has worked for temporary clerical agencies, done in-home nursing assistance, and nonprofit work, she was employed by the Census Bureau in 2000 and 2010.

But a long-term career position had eluded her.  Johnson counts herself among millions of Americans who are chronically unemployed. In many cases, these Americans may not share her skill set, but they do share her race.

Official unemployment for African Americans exceeded 17 percent in January 2010, nearly twice that of whites and 6 points higher than the nation as a whole. As talk of a quickening recovery filled the airwaves, the unemployment rate for African Americans has since declined to 14 percent. But double-digit official unemployment has been the standard for decades.

The economic crisis has shifted the nation’s focus to job creation, but within the African American community, a 40-year crisis of economic insecurity and dreams deferred exists with solutions that are just as unclear.

Persistent gaps

Since 1972, when the government began collecting employment data by race and ethnicity, the unemployment rate for African Americans has always exceeded that of their white counterparts by a about 2 to 1, even when taking into account national economic conditions and educational advancement for African Americans.

African Americans also are disproportionately among those who are underemployed or who have given up looking for work — 22 percent — though they comprise only 12 percent of the labor force.

Johnson’s personal and family histories offer glimpses into the historical strides and struggles of employment in the African American community. The Pittsburgh native said her grandfather faced hiring discrimination when seeking a job at a baking plant near their home.

“They pretty much told him if he was black, they weren’t going to hire him,” said Johnson.

Her mother woke at 3 a.m. for her job as a food-service manager at casual-dining chain Hot Shoppes, returning around 6 p.m. each evening. Hot Shoppes grew into the multibillion-dollar Marriott Corporation.

“She wound up training people who went into corporate jobs,” said Johnson, though her mother did not make that leap.

Johnson’s own time at temporary agencies provided employment but not security.

Being moved from workplace to workplace “was pretty much the nature of the environment,” Johnson said. “Although there was the ‘hope’ that you would be picked up as a permanent employee, things like that are few and far between.”

In her job search over time, Johnson has experienced peculiarities she said are attributable to discrimination.

“I’ve been down on my luck, needing to find a job, called to fill out an application, walked in to get the application, and, all of a sudden, they weren’t hiring,” said Johnson.

Good times not shared

April 2000 marked the lowest rate of official unemployment for African Americans in the past 40 years — 7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.