Weak Social Networks Contribute to Black Joblessness

Construction workers help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. AP Photo/Darron Cummings (National Journal)

While race has long been linked to stubbornly high unemployment rates among blacks, a growing body of research suggests that weak social and professional networks — often the result of living in what researchers call "concentrated disadvantages" — also contribute to slow workplace placement and advancement.

At 13.2 percent, the black jobless rate is twice that of whites. The economic meltdown hit blacks especially hard. For example, African-Americans:

  • Saw significant declines in wealth, with the gap between whites and blacks nearly doubling.
  • Lost their homes at higher rates.
  • Were squeezed out of the middle class in greater proportions.
  • Experienced the highest unemployment rates of all racial and ethnic groups.

In good times or bad, improving an individual's economic condition — for people in all strata and sectors — starts with a job. "Networking well is very important to people's ability to find employment," says E. Faye Williams, executive director of the National Congress of Black Women. The nonprofit organization helps match female talent in a variety of arenas, including political appointments, law firms, federal agencies, universities, and private companies.

But not all black workers buy it. Many resist the conventional wisdom of professionals and career coaches who agree that tapping into a person's social and professional networks is critical to landing a job.

Many see the wisdom of leveraging networks, but job hopefuls and employed workers alike often talk about social roadblocks. One is just numbers: Few blacks are in top positions empowered to make hiring decisions, notes Algernon Austin, director of the race, ethnicity, and the economy program at the Economic Policy Institute.

Studies have suggested that social and professional networks, much like residential neighborhoods, are largely segregated, further limiting a black person's access to those who are in a position to hire. "We don't have as many people who have the opportunities to be in a position where they can both offer jobs to others or recommend places where others can work," Williams says.

Austin projects the jobless rate for blacks will exceed 10 percent well through 2015, continuing a 50-year trend he wrote about for BET.com. In his commentary, he draws a connection among weak school performance, joblessness, higher crime rates, and poverty.

Weak social and professional networks, however, don't tell the full story.

Among "concentrated disadvantages" tied to high black unemployment rates are restructured industries that no longer employ large number of blacks, poor education, and evolving labor-market needs. Part of that inherent disadvantage may be subtle discrimination mixed with vestiges of years of open racism, argues sociologist Sandra Smith, an associate professor at the University of California (Berkeley), who researches urban poverty, joblessness, and social capital and social networks.

Case in point: Researchers found that comparable resumes belonging to individuals with black-sounding names, such as Lakisha and Jamal, were 50 percent less likely to get a call back than those with names most associated with whites (Emily or Greg).

"We still see a preference for the white applicants," Austin says, referring to the 2003 study that is still relevant today. "We're in denial of the conscious or [unconscious] prejudice against black workers or black applicants."

In private conversation, Austin says, people have admitted they could understand why someone would discriminate against African-Americans, repeating stereotypes that "blacks do worse because blacks are lazy or don't have values."

"It doesn't register to them that what they just said indicates prejudice against blacks," Austin says. "These blanket attitudes make it much more difficult for you to positively receive a qualified black candidate if you have these ideas."

In a way, these attitudes help explain why unemployment rates are higher for blacks in nearly every sector of the workforce.

The unemployment rate for black construction workers exceeds 30 percent, significantly higher than 15.3 percent for whites, according to a recent Washington Post article. Those with only a high school diploma had a jobless rate of 15.5 percent, compared with 8.4 percent among white workers with the same level of education.

Because blacks are more likely than Latinos to live in neighborhoods were relatively few adults are working, it reinforces a long-held belief that joblessness is a reflection of one's moral shortcomings. The notion that anyone can get ahead by simply working hard, a key ingredient in the American Dream, obscures the reality that economic upward mobility is declining for everyone, Smith says.

"There are fewer jobs that pay decent," Smith says, adding that the many factory jobs that once allowed a working parent to support a family are no longer available. "They are looking at the future based on a past that no longer exists."

Williams reminds members of the National Congress of Black Women to broaden their networks and to not discount anyone, even those in entry-level positions, when developing professional networks. "They can say, "˜This person is leaving and this job is opening soon,' " she counseled.

"Don't give up," she said, while acknowledging that it's easy for people to get discouraged. "Always put your best foot forward. Thank people, even when they tell you no. At some point, they have something they can offer."

What's perhaps more surprising is that those with math and computer degrees — credentials that policymakers and education advocates say are critical in today's tough job market — didn't fare any better. Black professionals with those degrees had a jobless rate of 8.1 percent in 2011, nearly double that of whites.

Williams offers tips to recent college graduates for developing social contacts:

  • Have your resume prepared at all times — don't wait until a job opens.  
  • Volunteer in areas in which you wish to secure employment.
  • Be active in your campus organization so your resume demonstrates your interests and leadership skills.
  • Attend conferences or conventions where you can meet people in your field.