Working twice as hard to get half as far: Race-based employment gap in Minnesota


The Twin Cities metro area has the biggest disparity in black-white unemployment rates of any major metropolitan area in the country. What is going on here? 

That’s the question addressed by Dr. Algernon Austin, author of the Economic Policy Issues brief that presented the research on national disparities in unemployment by race. He spoke at a “leadership session” organized by the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability at in St. Paul on September 1.

Austin sliced, diced and dissected the numbers from a dozen studies, and came up with three reasons for the disparity. The first reason – plain, old racial discrimination – has a lot to do with the nationwide racial disparity in unemployment. The second two reasons – a high dropout rate and a young labor force – have more to do with why the Twin Cities has a worse record than other cities.

First, racial discrimination in hiring is still a major factor across the country, and in the Twin Cities as well.

Austin cited an African American proverb: “You’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far as a Black person in white America.” Study after study shows that white job applicants are more likely to be hired than black applicants, even when all qualifications are equal. The most convincing studies – such as a 2001 study in Milwaukee – match pairs of researchers, one white and one black, for similar characteristics and train them to present information in similar ways. When black and white applicants with identical qualifications applied for jobs, the positive employer response – being called in for an interview or offered a job on the spot – was 34 percent for white applicants and 14 percent for black applicants.

Some pairs of applicants were instructed to show criminal records on their applications. For these applicants, 17 percent of white applicants with criminal records received a positive response – higher than the positive response for black applicants with no criminal records.

Austin cited other studies and results in cities across the country – all showing that racial discrimination in hiring persists across the country.

Second, the Twin Cities has a higher high school dropout rate for African Americans and lack of education is a major contributor to unemployment.

The higher dropout rate, however, raises its own question: Why is the dropout rate high for African American youth in the Twin Cities?

While this may be a partial explanation for the difference in unemployment rates, it’s only part of the picture.

For example, African Americans with a high school diploma or GED were three times as likely to be unemployed as whites with the same level of education. Even if blacks had the exact same educational profile as whites in Minneapolis, they would still have a much higher unemployment rate.

Not that this is only a Minneapolis, or Minnesota, problem. Austin cited national studies conducted prior to the current recession, which showed that African Americans with some college or an associate degree have unemployment rate similar to those of white high school dropouts.

The relatively young age of the African American labor force in the Twin Cities is also a factor, because younger people have higher unemployment rates.

Younger people have a higher unemployment rate than older workers. A higher percentage of African Americans are younger workers. But that’s still only a partial factor. “Even if the black and white populations were identical in high school dropout rates and in their age distribution, there would still be a big difference in unemployment rates,” concluded Austin. “People working to improve the employment opportunities for black workers should not underestimate the resistance to hiring.”

Two local panels responded to Austin’s presentation.

“We have to have race-conscious solutions,” said Jermaine Toney, of the Organizing Apprenticeship Project. “We talk about racial disparities, but we nee to talk about race-conscious solutions, so that solutions do not end up reinforcing disparities. … We have to get racial equity a s a standard of government effectiveness.”

Solutions that address the problems of one in five African American males who have criminal records are crucial, said Sarah Walker, of 180 Degrees and the Second Chance Coalition. As a first step, she said, the “ban the box” legislation that says public sector employers cannot ask about criminal records in the first steps of the application process needs to be extended to private employers as well.

State Representative Bobby Joe Champion said that we need to “enforce local laws already on the books – that’s part of the solution.” Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter also called for attention to hiring in the Central Corridor LRT project.




9/2/2010 CORRECTION: Jermaine Toney, of the Organizing Apprenticeship Project