Oklahoma’s Unemployment Gap (Part Two): Why the labor market isn't colorblind

This post is the second in a three-part series on “Oklahoma’s Unemployment Gap,” examining the persistence of racial disparities in unemployment.  Part One introduced the unemployment gap and presents preliminary descriptive data on state labor market trends by race.  Part Two explores underlying and immediate causes for the state’s black-white unemployment gap and suggests reasons for its persistence.  Part Three will evaluate solutions for addressing and closing the gap.

Part One of this series examined the stubborn persistence of the unemployment gap between black and white workers.  Despite decades of improvement in social, political, and economic status, black Americans are still unemployed at twice the rate of their white counterparts, a ratio that hasn’t changed since the 1940s.  Why aren’t black workers achieving employment parity?  Researchers point to two factors: (1) the high incarceration rate among blacks, especially black men; and (2) discrimination in the hiring process.

Oklahoma incarcerated 25,476 people in 2010, 30.5 percent of whom were black.  Since only 7.4 percent of the population of Oklahoma are African-American, there are more than four times as many blacks in the prison system as there are in the state’s general population.  This is an even larger disparity than the national average, where three times more black people are incarcerated than their population would predict.  Oklahoma ranked 9th in black incarceration rates in a 2005 comprehensive census of state and federal correctional facilities.  These exceptionally high rates of incarceration amount to a double whammy for black joblessness.  Researchers Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett explain:

The impact of incarceration on unemployment has two conflicting dynamics. In the short run, U.S. incarceration lowers conventional unemployment measures by removing able‐bodied, working‐age men from labor force counts. In the long run, social survey data show that incarceration raises unemployment by reducing the job prospects of ex‐convicts.

Since the Labor Department doesn’t include prison populations when calculating unemployment statistics, the already sky-high black jobless rate is actually even higher than the reported figure.  Also, higher black incarceration rates multiplies the effects of hiring discrimination on black unemployment.

Hiring discrimination against ex-offenders is well-documented and widespread.  In Oklahoma, it’s even explicitly permitted by statute.  As we previously blogged about here, state law puts up barriers to ex-felons pursuing a long list of professions, including cosmetologists, funeral directors, athletic trainers, pawnbrokers, marital and family therapists, and more.  Unfortunately, hiring discrimination is not limited to black ex-offenders, but is a problem that has faced black job-seekers in this country for more than a century.

Despite a litany of post-election commentary in 2008 and high-profile best-selling books heralding the end of racism in America, scholarly research is unequivocal on the question of hiring discrimination against black applicants: it’s alive and well.  Sociologist Devah Pager’s groundbreaking peer-reviewed research has demonstrated that black applicants without a criminal record are less likely to get call-backs from prospective employers than white applicants with a criminal record and just released from prison.  Economics professors at MIT report a sizable gap in callbacks for job applicants with white-sounding names versus black-sounding names.  Submitting identical resumes online – Brendan, Gregg, Emily and Anne received 50 percent more call-backs across the board than Tamika, Aisha, Rasheed and Tyrone.

These two explanations – incarceration and discrimination – stand out above the others as best able to account for the unemployment gap.  While some have suggested that differences in education might be to blame, black unemployment is significantly higher than that of whites at all levels of educational attainment.  Algernon Austin, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute explains further:

Over the course of the recession, the unemployment disparity between college educated blacks and whites actually widened.  If black workers who are the most prepared to compete and work in the new economy can’t find jobs, that’s something that we as a country have to take seriously.

The sobering reality is that black unemployment is probably even worse than the data documents and is perpetuated by high incarceration rates and deeply entrenched prejudice.  Oklahoma’s problem is acute, faring worse than most other states in terms of black incarceration and black unemployment, as this series has documented.  Stay tuned for Part Three, which will review potential strategies for narrowing the racial unemployment gap in Oklahoma.


4 thoughts on “Oklahoma’s Unemployment Gap (Part Two): Why the labor market isn't colorblind

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.