Economic Snapshot | Race and Ethnicity

50 years of recessionary-level unemployment in black America

August 28 will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the setting of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  In 1963, civil rights activists were keenly aware that blacks were suffering disproportionately from high unemployment, and, therefore, one of the demands of the march was for a jobs program that would provide a job to every American who wanted to work. As this recent EPI report explains, we have not yet achieved this goal and blacks have persistently endured what can be considered a “permanent recession.”

The figure shows the average of the annual unemployment rates for whites and blacks from 1963 to 2012. It also shows the average of the national unemployment rate during recession years in this period. The average unemployment rate for the recession years is 6.7 percent. Over this period, whites have an average unemployment rate of 5.1 percent, significantly below the recession average. In fact, for most of the 50 years, the white unemployment rate was below 5.1 percent, at times falling to as low as 3.1 percent. By contrast, the average unemployment rate for blacks over the past 50 years, at 11.6 percent, is considerably higher than the average rate during recessions of 6.7 percent. In only one year (1969), did the black unemployment rate dip slightly below the recession average to 6.4 percent. Thus, over the last 50 years, the black unemployment rate has been at a level typical for a recession or higher.

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