The economy is improving: Nationally, unemployment is about 5 percent, down from 10 percent in 2009. But for black Americans, the unemployment rate is much higher—for them, the economy is still a disaster. Unemployment among blacks was 9.5 percent during the third quarter of 2015 compared to only 4.5 percent for whites. While the discrepancy in unemployment has been volatile, the current gap is actually slightly larger than the one that existed 15 years ago or in the years directly preceding the recession.
Why is this? Many people point to education as a major cause of this disparity. A higher percentage of white Americans obtain college degrees: 41 percent, compared to the black population’s 22 percent. But data from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) show that differences in education can’t explain fully the entirety of the unemployment gap. According to research from Valerie Wilson, an economist at EPI, for black Americans with the same level of education level as white Americans, the unemployment rate is consistently nearly twice as high.
Wilson looks at census data and finds, unsurprisingly, unemployment is highest for those who didn’t attend college at all. Among those who hadn’t completed high school, whites had an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent. But for black Americans, the situation was much more extreme: Their unemployment rate was almost two-and-a-half times higher, at 16.6 percent. And a gap persists even among those who have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, with an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent for black Americans compared to 2.4 percent for white Americans with the same degree.