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There's Trouble In The Job Market For Black College Graduates


So let's focus this conversation a little bit more. Remember I said earlier that there is a mixed picture for new graduates? Well, the going is tougher for new graduates who are black, even if they studied high demand fields like engineering. A recent report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research titled "A College Degree Is No Guarantee" says that last year, about 12 percent of black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed. For all college graduates in the same age range, that's graduates of all races, the unemployment rate was about half that.

Of course, we assume that there's a lot going on behind these numbers. So we have two guests with us to talk about this issue and what black graduates face as they search for jobs this summer and why. Janelle Jones is a research associate at the Center for Economic Policy and Research. She is one of the authors of the report. She's with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome, thanks for coming in.

JANELLE JONES: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Professor Nancy DiTomaso. She is vice dean for faculty and research at Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick. Nancy's also the author of the book "The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism," and we are speaking to her from member station WBGO in Newark. Professor DiTomaso, thanks so much for joining us once again.

NANCY DITOMASO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Janelle, let's start with you. The report says that compared to non-black graduates, black graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed. And one of the things that stands out to me, is something I mentioned earlier, this is true even in high-demand fields. For example, 10 percent of black college graduates with - with computer-related fields were - sorry, 10 percent of black college graduates in engineering and 11 percent with math and computer related fields were unemployed. That's compared with 6 percent of engineering grads and 7 percent of all math grads. So the obvious question is, why?

JONES: Right, yeah. So we do talk about that in the report. And we also - I mean, you talked about the numbers for engineering. Thirty-two percent of black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 are underemployed - 32 percent.

MARTIN: I'm going to get to that.

JONES: Right.

MARTIN: I'm going to get to the underemployed as well. But I want to - specifically, what is the - what's the why?

JONES: Right. Well, the why is definitely a weak labor market. We have, you know, we have seen that we're basically in recovery, but these young African-American graduates are definitely not feeling recovered. So the weak labor market definitely has something to do with it, and we also talk a little bit about racism in the report. And...

MARTIN: Well, talk a little bit more about racism in the report.

JONES: (Laughing).

MARTIN: Let's hear about it.

JONES: Sure. So, you know, we have - we list a couple of studies where you show - you basically have a black applicant and white applicant. You send out the exact same resume, white applicant's more likely to get a call back. And even when we - in the report we look at, you know, by major. So these are people who have studied the same thing, they're the same age, and blacks are more likely to be unemployed. So, you know, it's not skills. It's not experience. It's something else. And we think that that something else is labor market discrimination.

MARTIN: And talk about the underemployment. As you mentioned that we have also talked about unemployment, but you said that the high percentage of black graduates are underemployed, meaning they're working at jobs for which they are overqualified. And that's more likely to be the case, and why do we think that is?

JONES: Right. Well, again, racism and the weak labor market has something to do with it. More than half of these black college graduates are in jobs that don't require a degree. And that just - I mean, that really blows my mind. You go to school, you stay, you finish, you get a job, and it doesn't require a degree. That is just incredibly discouraging, and it's something that, you know, a lot of people are dealing with.

MARTIN: Professor DiTomaso, let's turn to you now. The Atlantic did a piece about this report, and you are quoted in it. And you say, this study, its findings, as terrible as they are, honestly should not come as a shock to anybody who's willing to face the truth about employment and unemployment in the United States. So talk about that. Why do you think that that is true?

DITOMASO: Well, first of all there is context to these kinds of numbers. The same kinds of proportions have actually been in effect, or been represented in the job market for at least the last 50 years. Fifty years or so, the ratio of white unemployment to black unemployment was about 2.1, and more recently it's about 2.2, meaning that twice as many blacks are unemployed as whites, both 50 years ago and now. And although there's been some minor variations across year, depending on the economic conditions of the country, it's really been about the same ratio for a very long time.

MARTIN: Is there...

DITOMASO: So and that's...

MARTIN: ...Is there anything - and I understand that you're saying that, look, this has been true for the past 50 years. But is there anything in the present moment that makes the underemployment and unemployment of black graduates unique? Anything at all?

DITOMASO: Well, certainly the economic crisis that started in 2008 and the very slow recovery since then has exacerbated whatever kinds of processes or mechanisms already were at play. But I wanted to call attention to an issue that I've been trying to raise when these kinds of discussions come up, which is that one could take these same numbers - of the unemployment rate, the underemployment rate, the issues regarding new graduates trying to get jobs or people in different kinds of fields trying to get jobs - and turn it around. Instead of saying that blacks are more likely to be unemployed or that they're more likely to be underemployed and so on, you could use those very same numbers and say that whites are more likely to get jobs and they are less likely to be underemployed.

So again, in my analysis and research, I think that the dynamics - it's not so much racism and discrimination, although I'm sure that those exist, as it is that the job market in general works in terms of people helping each other. And whites help other whites get jobs, and when the number of jobs available are very tight and scarce, those kinds of processes are even more likely to take place. And so whites are, if you are, if you will, over employed (laughing) or overrepresented in the available opportunities. And I think that's the dynamic that is more important to look at because it's one that we haven't given enough attention to.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that. For those who are interested in this question, and I assume that's many people, who want to know what the situation is for other minorities, that falls somewhere in between that of blacks and whites. According to the federal data in 2013, the share of all college-educated Asian-Americans who are unemployed roughly equal the proportion of whites. But all Hispanic college graduates faced a 5 percent unemployment rate, which was more than whites but less than African-Americans.

So let's wheel around. And, Professor DiTomaso, let's talk about - and, Janelle, I want to hear from you, too, as well - what's the right approach to this? How would you say - what is the best way to address this for people who believe that this gap is unacceptable, given that the message that, you know, policymakers, educators, parents are all saying if you get the right skills, that that will address the problem? These data suggest that that is not necessarily the case. So, Professor DiTomaso, you've said, you've studied this quite closely. What do you say to that? If you say the issue is that whites tend to help whites, which is - tends not to be illegal, (laughing) right? Or at least there's no federal...

DITOMASO: Right, yes.

MARTIN: ...There's no specific prohibition against that. It's called kind of networking. But what do you say? What's the right way to address this?

DITOMASO: Well, first of all, it's consequential if whites help other whites and other groups help those that are like themselves as well. But whites are disproportionately in the positions where they get to make the decisions about who gets hired, who has opportunities. They're more likely to be in jobs with higher incomes, with more authority, with more training and so on. And therefore, when we have these kinds of processes, where jobs are obtained, or more likely because of these kinds of networking processes, it's very consequential in terms of reproducing inequality. And that can take place without necessarily using racism as an explanation.

Again, it's - from my perspective, it's more the favoritism that whites show toward other whites than it is the discrimination or racism that whites show, certainly intentionally, toward blacks or other nonwhites. So what does one do about it? I think that it's important on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, to raise these issues again in terms of a policy level, a collective level. There needs to be attention to how these kinds of decisions, about who gets hired and who gets jobs and what kinds of opportunities are available. It used to be that - at least in the early days of the passage of the Civil Rights Act and then following with executive orders, that affirmative action was seen as a particular solution. And again, if you see affirmative action not as a way to give preferences to blacks, but to stop giving preferences to whites, then that policy, in fact, was very effective in terms of changing some of the picture in terms of who had access to certain kinds of jobs. At the organizational level, companies can also pay more attention to the kind of biases that decision-makers make for whites, as opposed to the biases against blacks, which is where all of their attention has been focused.

MARTIN: I need to, I want to give, I need to give Janelle a chance...


MARTIN: ...To weigh in on this question as well. So, Janelle Jones, final thought from you?

JONES: Sure. So I think that, you know, one thing that we've seen is that when the labor market is doing well for everyone, blacks tend to, kind of, rise with that tide. So the strongest period of growth, for wages and labor market opportunities for African-Americans was when, you know, the entire economy was at full employment in the early 2000s.

So I think that, you know, the likelihood of getting, kind of, a national policy that addresses blacks getting better jobs is not likely. So I think that, you know, one way we can do this is really focus on full employment for everyone and recovering the labor market at the bottom.

MARTIN: Janelle Jones is a research associate at the Center for Economic Policy and Research. She's one of the authors of the report "A College Degree Is No Guarantee." She joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Rutgers University professor Nancy DiTomaso is author of "The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism." We spoke to her from member station WBGO in Newark. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

DITOMASO: Thank you.

JONES: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.