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Algernon Austin Headshot

Black Job Seekers are Still at the Back of the Bus

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At this time of year, when we celebrate the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month, we often celebrate the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. But I never hear anyone speak of the many goals that the Movement did not achieve. One such goal is the goal of full employment for African Americans.

The 1963 March in which King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech was not simply a "march on Washington" as many people call it. The full title of the march was the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." The truly important part of the title is the "jobs and freedom" part. If we are going to abbreviate the title of the march, let's call it the "March for Jobs and Freedom." When we say "the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom" we remind ourselves that jobs was a fundamental part of the African American civil rights movement.

One demand of the March for Jobs and Freedom was for "a massive Federal program to train and place unemployed workers." When Martin Luther King died, he was still planning the Poor People's Campaign. The number one goal of the Poor People's Campaign was full employment. In a full-employment economy everyone who wants a job can get one. In his book, I've Got the Light of Freedom, the civil rights historian Charles Payne points out that for Mississippians involved in the civil rights movement, civil rights included the right to a "decent job."

Jobs was such an important issue to civil rights activists because in the 1960s the black unemployment rate was about twice the white rate. Civil rights activists also recognized that without jobs, blacks would never conquer poverty and all of the problems that stem from poverty. Fifty years later, the black unemployment rate continues to run at about twice the white unemployment rate, and blacks have failed to conquer poverty and all of the problems that stem from poverty.

Many times over the last 50 years, the American economy has provided a job for nearly every white American who has wanted one. But the American economy has never succeeded in doing the same for African Americans. We need to create an American economy where not only every white person who wants to work can find a job, but also where every black person who wants to work can find a job.

In the past 50 years, the highest unemployment rates that white America has experienced are about the level of the lowest unemployment rates that black America has experienced. This means that if African Americans were to give up the struggle for equality and were to just obtain enough jobs to have the worst unemployment rate that whites have experienced over the last 50 years, this change would be a tremendous improvement over the status quo. When it comes to unemployment, African Americans are still second-class citizens, sitting at the back of the bus.

Pretty much all of the major social problems faced by African Americans are connected to the problem of the persistent high levels of joblessness. Of course, black poverty rates are linked to high black unemployment rates. We also know that poor children do worse in school [PDF] than middle-class children. A significant part of the achievement gap stems from the high rate of black poverty. If you are interested in reducing crime in black communities, then it is important to reduce black unemployment rates. Economic disadvantage is correlated with crime rates. The wealth gap is also connected to the unemployment gap. People who are unemployed do not build wealth; they spend down their savings, and if they have no savings, they go into debt. If you are interested in increasing the black marriage rate, again, you should be concerned about the high rate of joblessness among blacks. Economic insecurity is linked to lower marriage rates. Greater rates of steady employment in good jobs for blacks, and particularly for black men, would lead to an increase in the black marriage rate.

The civil rights activists of the 1960s marched on Washington to fight for job opportunities for blacks. They succeeded in obtaining anti-discrimination policies, but they did not succeed in obtaining "a massive Federal program to train and place unemployed workers," nor did they obtain a real federal commitment for full employment. If we truly want to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, we need to continue the work that they did not complete.