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The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was supposed to end employee discrimination in the economy, but a new Labor Day study from Pew Research Center shows the issues that burdened Black workers in 1963 continue to hinder their economic mobility today.
Over 260 years after the end of slavery, the new poll from Pew Research Center shows a majority of the 21 million Black American workers still feel the chains of Jim Crow throughout the entire economy system.
Black Americans remain more likely to work in lower-paying jobs that require more physical labor, earn less than their white coworkers, face an unemployment rate that is double the national average, and experience discrimination in hiring, retention and promotion.
Notably, no other group holds more support for diversity, equity and inclusion programs in the workplace than Black Americans.
Yet “when it comes to their own employer’s DEI efforts, 28% of Black workers say their company or organization pays too little attention to increasing DEI – the largest share of any racial or ethnic group,” the study found.
President Biden has celebrated the lowest Black unemployment rate in modern history as the economy recovers from record-high inflation. Yet the new Pew Research study, just in time for Labor Day, shows a rising tide does not equitably lift all boats.
A relic of Jim Crow: Black workers in a segregated economy
For instance, Black Americans are more likely to work in certain industries and specific roles. Despite making up roughly 13% of the workforce, Black employees are heavily concentrated in physically demanding or in-person jobs as opposed to an office or remote position, the study found.
They make up larger shares of postal service clerks (40.4%) transit and intercity bus drivers (36.6%) nursing assistants (36%) security guards and gambling surveillance officers (34.5%) and home health aides (32.5%).
Meanwhile, Black workers are underrepresented in higher paying industries such as engineering and some science occupations.
“One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a crowd over 250,000 people during the 1963 March on Washington.
A systemic gap in the economy
A century after Americans fought to end slavery, including 179,000 Black soldiers, Jim Crow laws and customs kept Black Americans in a second-class status. On this Labor Day, the study from Pew Research Center reminds us of the barriers that remain.
Even though U.S. Supreme Court cases had begun to strike down racist segregation laws around the nation, the rulings hardly changed hearts and minds. From employers to even unions, Black workers faced rampant discrimination in both the South and the North.
Black migrants who traveled North to find better opportunities were placed in the least favorable conditions. Some were even attacked by Northern whites who were against competing with Blacks for jobs or being drafted in the Civil War.
“…because blacks were subject to discriminatory practices. Blacks often occupied the most unskilled and menial jobs in the shipbuilding industry. Many blacks performed the most arduous tasks, such as cleaning the yards and other outdoor work, which required hard physical labor,” Cuahutémoc Arroyo wrote for the Jim Crow Museum.
Like in the 1960s, Black employees see racial discrimination and a lack of educational training resources as the primary barriers preventing transitions to more lucrative work, according to the Pew Research study.
Black workers face barriers on Labor Day
In addition, Black workers continue to earn less. Specifically, they earn $878 compared with $1,059 for all U.S. workers in the same age group, Pew Research found. In total, the U.S. unemployment rate for August 2023 stood at 3.8%, a measurement that only counts those actively looking for work.
Meanwhile, the Black unemployment rate for the same month was nearly twice as high at 5.8%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In fact, U.S. leaders would claim the economy is in a recession if the national unemployment rate was as high as the Black unemployment rate.
The Economic Policy Institute took an average of unemployment rates between 1963 and 2012. It found that on average, the white unemployment rate was 5.1% compared to 11.6% for Black workers.
“Thus, over the last 50 years, the black unemployment rate has been at a level typical for a recession or higher,” EPI stated in the 2013 study.
Cashing the check of justice on Labor Day
As Americans celebrate Labor Day a decade later, Black workers say racial discrimination presents a high barrier to cross. About four in 10 (41%) Black employees say they’ve experienced discrimination in hiring, pay or promotions because of their race or ethnicity.
It’s a higher share than any other ethnic group. Only 25% of Asian American workers, 20% of Hispanic American workers and eight percent of white American workers say the same, Pew Research found.
Only one percent of Black employees say increasing DEI in the workplace is a bad thing. Nearly 80 percent say it’s a good thing. Yet for most of them, they say their own employers don’t share the same enthusiasm.
As far-right state and national figures build up fear and hate against racial justice, time will tell if the nation’s bank of justice is bankrupt. In response to racial uprisings in the 60s, the drafters of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report sought to find systemic solutions.
Its three recommendations included: creating programs on the scale of the problem, aiming the programs for high impact in the immediate future to close racial gaps, and undertaking new experiments to change the system.
It remains to be seen whether the nation’s leaders will take action on the decades-old report. Yet some still have hope.
“We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation,” Dr. King said over 60 years ago. “And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”