Looking Beyond the Headlines on Black Jobs and Workers in America

05/19/2015 12:06 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

From recent numbers, we learned that the unemployment rate for African Americans fell to single digits (9.6 percent) for April 2015. This is the lowest rate in nearly seven years, and the lowest of the Obama presidency.

Some in the media have touted this as a great success. In reality, this good news masks a much larger and historic problem facing African Americans and the workforce. Despite the improvement, the African American jobless rate is still double the unemployment rate of white workers, which has remained consistent since February at 4.7 percent. In fact, since the 1960s, the black unemployment rate has ranged from 2 to 2.5 times the rate for whites.

This harsh historical reality that gets buried in the day-to-day headlines has led some prominent black economists from across the country to label the job situation for blacks in the U.S. a crisis. Algernon Austin, one of those economists, states the situation succinctly "African American communities face a chronic and severe crisis of people who want to work but cannot find jobs."

If one looks only at individuals with a bachelor's degree, the black unemployment rate still approaches twice that of the white unemployment rate. One reason? Because individual effort on the part of black workers cannot change the minds of the remaining discriminatory employers. Given the structural barriers that remain to the entry of African Americans into the workforce, Austin concludes, "Bringing equal opportunity to blacks in terms of the relative number of jobs will demand a strong national commitment to creating jobs for black workers."

But as with many crises there is great opportunity. Two new reports released in May (#BlackWorkersMatter and And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders' Voices, Power and Promise) shed a great light on the opportunities for black workers to collectively take a much stronger hold of their own economic destinies, organize into unions, and seek to reverse these trends and improve all economic indicators -- not just for themselves, but for all Americans.

The plight of African American workers in today's changing economy should be of great concern to all moderate and progressive institutions. Workers of color have been particularly hard hit by the rising tide of inequality. Among the most important things that black workers need to survive and grow in today's economy are targeted racial and economic justice programs and projects designed to foster, expand and support opportunities for black-worker organizing and collective action.

The potential for black workers to help rejuvenate the U.S. labor movement and transform it into the ultimate working class and civil rights vehicle is enormous. Just as in the 1960s, today, a new, bold generation of young black leaders, many of them women, is emerging. And, even in these extremely difficult times for organizing, we can see some encouraging signs of their success.

While not in the context of labor organizing, the explosion of protests and activism coming out of Ferguson, Baltimore and cities like it can also be seen as amazingly encouraging. It is remarkable that with so few resources, largely young, low-income African Americans have succeeded in sparking a national conversation about racial justice and the historic economic disparities that stem back to the very founding of this nation.

#BlackWorkersMatter offers a comprehensive picture of the status of both black workers and the struggle for economic opportunity for African Americans. The first and longest section of the report focuses on black worker organizing, its history, and the challenges it faces, relying heavily on interviews with activists and leaders prominent in the worker organizing field.

It is followed by four sections that address various aspects of the black jobs crisis, its causes, its effects and the potential for black worker organizing to provide a path to its resolution. The final section of #BlackWorkersMatter provides recommendations to expand black worker power and opportunity.

And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders' Voices, Power and Promise is the flagship report of the Institute for Policy Studies new Black Worker Initiative. The report profiles 27 amazing black women activists from across the country who are in different stages of their careers and work in a range of different sectors. The report also features the results of a national survey of more than 450 black women in the labor movement about their experiences.

The main purpose of the report is two-fold:

- To stimulate investment in organizing black women because they are the most receptive group of workers to forming unions and have the highest union election win rate of any other group (nearly 90 percent when organized by other women of color);

- To bring the expertise of black women more fully to bear in strategies to advance economic justice within organized labor and the broader civil rights and progressive movement.

What is needed today is a bold investment in opportunities for black workers and the communities in which they reside. Organizations such as labor unions and the civil rights groups need to take up the economic justice mantle even stronger today than in days past. Race matters and diversity, equity and inclusion must truly prevail in all its public and private thinking and action. The final story on jobs has yet to be written but with bold action we can all have our voices heard in the narrative.

Marc Bayard, an expert on labor, civil rights and racial justice issues, is an associate fellow and the director of the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.