08/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Recession: A New Disaster for Black Men

Last week, the New York City Comptroller issued a report that should be sending up red flags across dozens of cities in America. While unemployment rose steadily for White New Yorkers for the first quarter of '08 through the first 3 months of this year, the number of unemployed Blacks in the city rose four times as fast!

Unemployment among Blacks now stands at nearly 15 percent. At the rate the city is going, unemployment among Black New Yorkers may well climb above 20 percent before the recession ends. These projections are a disaster because they come on top of reports issued by the Community Service Society that, when focusing on labor participation rates (which includes people no longer actively seeking employment), only half of Black men between ages 16 to 64 in New York City are working.

What's happening is a confluence of factors that have been building for a long time. A key has been a dropout (and push out) rate from the city's public schools which has virtually no graduation rate for black males with a Regents diploma, something virtually everyone agrees is required for accessing good jobs. But even the rate of issuance of a regular diploma and GED are terrible, ranking New York City among the worst localities in the nation.

Added to that is labor force concentration in construction, government employment, and transportation, all sectors hard hit even before the current downturn. And, of course, tough competition for low-wage employment from immigrants and significant incarceration rates under the Rockefeller drug laws for non-violent drug arrests and you have the a mixture of factors that have brought us to what may be a new low for employment and stability in African-American neighborhoods.

It seems hard to fathom given the extraordinary achievement in the election of Barack Obama that occurred at the very time that the future prospects for so many Black men without credentials may in some ways be worse than when I was growing up in Crown Heights in the 50's and 60's.

But the election of Obama, and the emergence of an enormous surge in voter participation among Black and Latino voters, does allow us to consider actions to make serious inroads into this problem, which would have been out of the question 30 years ago. In the Congress alone, 57 members are Black and Latino. In the short term, help has to be found in looking at who's going to get jobs from the various capital stimulus efforts.

I've already expressed concern to members of Congress that the $435 million in capital funds for the New York City Housing Authority will provide little or no job opportunity for the tens of thousands of public housing residents who are actively looking for work -- this despite federal rules requiring that a third of jobs be for public housing residents. Even if we just organize residents in teams of workers (a Housing Authority Corps) to work on basic maintenance, this would provide short-term employment and provide immediate benefits for the 500,000 people living in public housing.

Congressman Jerry Nadler has introduced legislation (HR 2497) to enlist out of work young people in the various stimulus and capital efforts around transportation infrastructure. But to do something about this for the longer term is going to take a nationwide look at labor force preparation, something this administration with so much on its plate may not be able or willing to do without a major political and public push. If it's only directed at inner city young people, it's bound to fail.

But the problem for the young not destined to go to college -- because lack of interest, lousy basic education, or lack of family resources -- is an epidemic that has swept all through the country and this recession is going to make it worse. In the last pre-recession estimate, it was thought that nearly five million young people 16-24 are not in school or working. Now, with layoffs across the country, those without skills are going to need massive retraining, and those without a high school education and/or marketable skills are a clear and present danger to democracy.

From the huge increase in methamphetamine use in rural areas, to the explosion of gang activity in urban areas, the dangers of giving so many no hope in the American economy is going to be a fault line that will haunt us for generations if we don't begin to address it.

If we don't pay attention, more and more people who see no hope for themselves and their children are going to reach out for simplistic solutions to difficult problems, sparking extremism and a rise in violence. What we need now is a national commitment akin to that of the space program in the 1960s that will transform our workforce.