What Coronavirus Job Losses Reveal About Racism in America

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The economic and health crisis brought on by the pandemic has struck Black Americans especially hard: from their prevalence among workers in essential high-risk fields, to their disproportionate share of deaths, to extensive job losses. But the racial disparities didn’t begin with the virus. National unemployment numbers that now seem unprecedented for workers as a whole have been a daily reality for many Black communities for decades. See how different groups have experienced unemployment in the graphic below.

The devastating job losses of the past few months have affected all groups of Americans. But Black, Hispanic and other workers of color have seen especially steep declines.

Part of the reason for this disparity is that many workers of color, especially Black workers, didn’t come into the crisis on equal footing. At the beginning of 2020, when the U.S. was at what most would have considered peak economic prosperity, the unemployment rate for Black workers was more than double that of their white counterparts. “The classic fact about Black unemployment,” said William Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University who studies racial inequality, “is that it’s been two times the white rate since we started measuring it.”

For some groups of Black workers, the situation is even worse. Before the pandemic hit, the unemployment rate among young Black workers, which has historically been high, was 16%. That’s worse than the national unemployment rate in April, which prompted almost $3 trillion in emergency relief from lawmakers.

If we zoom out to the past decade, we see that Black Americans have faced unemployment levels for years that would be considered an economic catastrophe if they were the national average. “The Black unemployment rate is always ridiculously high, but we don’t treat it like a crisis,” said Jessica Fulton, vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Some groups of Americans, such as college graduates in wealthy households, have been relatively insulated from economic swings and have had some of the lowest levels of unemployment for the past decade. But even in these groups, the Black-white gap persists.

Researchers say there is only one plausible explanation for this persistent disparity. “It’s racial discrimination,” said Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy. “We see [the disparity] at different age cohorts, we see it all across the country, we see it at every level of education.”

And while education is often touted as the great equalizer, it doesn’t actually deliver on that promise for Black people. Black workers with a college degree are employed at about the same rate as white workers with just a high school degree.

Income also doesn’t explain away the disparity. Black workers and white workers with the same average household incomes see a consistent gap in unemployment. The gap is smaller at higher incomes, but it doesn’t go away.

Explore the chart yourself to see how different groups experience unemployment in this country.

Hannah Fresques contributed reporting.

Notes This piece draws inspiration from a New York Times graphic, “The Jobless Rate for People Like You,” published in November 2009.

In the chart that depicts unemployment over the last decade, we take a 12-month rolling average to calculate the employment rate for each group.

The data for Black, Asian, Native American, white, and two or more races excludes anyone with Hispanic ethnicity. While Hispanic is not counted as a race in the census questionnaire (any race can have Hispanic ethnicity), we include it as a separate racial group here. Asian includes Asian, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.

The data for workers with a college degree includes anyone with either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Source IPUMS CPS, University of Minnesota.

About the data This data comes from the Current Population Survey run by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It is not seasonally adjusted. Because employment statistics for each group are based on a sample of the population, there is a degree of uncertainty, especially with small groups.

We only display groups where more than 100 people with jobs or looking for work were surveyed in each month from January to June 2020. To check this approach, we also calculated the standard error for each group. We found that all displayed groups had standard errors close to or below 4 percentage points, meaning that 95% of the time the true unemployment rate for the group will be within 7 to 8 percentage points of what is displayed. The majority of groups have standard errors of less than 2 percentage points, which means they are accurate to within a few percentage points. Still, caution should be used when comparing two groups with small differences in their employment rates.

Many of the groups we are not able to display are subgroups of workers who are Native American, Asian, or two or more races, because of the small sample size of these groups.

As COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the employment landscape, there are a few other factors that may influence the employment rate and these numbers. First, categories of who counts as employed or unemployed have become more ambiguous. In March, BLS noted that some people were misclassified as employed when they should have been counted as unemployed, leading to the employment rate to appear slightly higher than it should. Which means that the above visualization actually paints a rosier picture than reality. See BLS’ statement on the misclassification issue.

Second, it’s likely that many people have left the workforce completely in the last few months, because of illness, child care or working in industries that have been destroyed in the pandemic. These people would not be counted in the official unemployment rate, which only includes those who have a job or are actively looking for work. Again, this would suggest that the above visualization actually paints a rosier picture than reality.

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