To Address Black Unemployment, We Need a Better Normal

April 30, 2020

The Department of Labor (DOL) was slated to release the latest data on unemployment filings tomorrow (the announcement is delayed until May 8), figures that will provide a staggering picture of COVID-19’s devastating effects on workers and our economy. Though not unexpected, these findings must shape the strategy, size, and scope for America’s economic recovery.

In its response, Congress needs to center the dual crisis that Black people are living through in the era of coronavirus: disproportionately high death rates from the illness and the highest rates of unemployment in a contracting economy. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the Black community in more ways than one, taking both lives and livelihoods.

According to preliminary estimates conducted by Michelle Holder, we provide a crushing preview of what unemployment in America will officially look like below:

  • US unemployment overall: At or above 17 percent
  • Black unemployment: At or above 20 percent
  • Black male unemployment: At or above 23 percent

These projections almost make the Great Recession’s job losses seem like a minor blip. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that unemployment had risen to 4.4 percent in March—an unfortunate uptick from February’s 50-year low of 3.5 percent. However, this is not even close to the degradation of jobs that we expect the DOL’s data to confirm.

Structural racism has long disadvantaged Black people in the economy and in our society. Black workers experienced the highest unemployment rates well before this crisis, and it is no accident that they are being left behind now. And corporate America, fueled by its outsized power in politics and policymaking, was financially exploiting Black people—Black women especially—even before the pandemic struck.

So far, the congressional response to the coronavirus recession is failing all of us, especially the Black community. As policymakers work to enact immediate solutions, they cannot afford to ignore the crucial need for sustainable structural change. From prioritizing essential workers to addressing the root causes of inequality, there are many ways to mitigate the pandemic’s pain and promote racial equity. “The inconvenient truth is that Black people are more vulnerable to this health crisis not because our community is weaker, but because we have been denied the resources that make any community strong,” shared Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rashad Robinson for The Root.

If there’s any hope to heal America and provide economic resilience now and for future generations, we must commit to building an economy that works for Black people and for all—and that requires centering Black women in our policy response.

Tracy Ross said it best:

For decades the federal government invested in the strength and stability of suburban, white communities while giving local governments license to exclude, neglect, and even demolish Black communities. Asking for intentional investments in communities of color is not asking for special treatment. It is asking for the types of investments that have benefited white communities to finally be made available to everyone. As we continue to address the immediate needs of this crisis, we must also plan for the long road to recovery, which requires finally addressing the enduring crisis of racial and economic inequality. Normal was never good enough.