The Racial Mismatch

A New Lecture: “Anti-Black Discrimination in the Age of Obama” by Dr. Algernon Austin

The simplistic idea that impoverished African Americans have only themselves to blame for their poverty, due to their poor cultural values—a notion advanced by many, including black public figures such as Bill Cosby—is believable only if a blind eye is turned to those inconvenient things social scientists like to call “facts.” Algernon Austin soundly refutes the “culture of poverty” argument by paying careful attention to marco-economic data about long-term poverty trends and sociological case studies about persistent discrimination. In other words, unlike the glib punditry, Austin actually looks at the “facts.”
--Dr. Andrew Hartman, professor and audience member, Illinois State University

Contact Dr. Austin to arrange a speaking engagement.

Many people argue that the jobs crisis facing black men stems from their lower educational attainment. There is a great need to improve the educational attainment of blacks generally, but educational improvements alone won't solve the crisis. The figure above shows the 2006 unemployment rates for non-Hispanic black and white males in Chicago. In Chicago, at every educational level, whites are more likely to be employed than blacks. If blacks had the exact same educational-attainment profile as whites, blacks would still be more likely to be unemployed. It is particularly surprising that the disparity is so large for high school dropouts. One high-school dropout should be as good or bad as the next.

If one does the same analysis for other major cities, one ends up with similar results. This analysis challenges the education-as-THE-solution perspective, and it also challenges the spatial-mismatch hypothesis. This hypothesis states that blacks have a harder time finding work because many of the jobs have moved out of heavily-black cities and to the predominantly-white suburbs.

But what the figure (and similar ones for other cities) shows is that in the same city proportionately more whites are finding work when blacks are not. Again, white high-school dropouts are having much greater success at finding work than black high-school dropouts.

The findings of this relatively simple analysis are corroborated by the paper "Spatial Mismatch or Racial Mismatch?" by Judith Hellerstein, David Neumark, and Melissa McInerney (NBER Working Paper 13161). These researchers find that only black job density in black neighborhoods predicts black male employment rates, not the overall job density for all racial groups. In other words, black men could live right next door to employers, but if those employers do not hire black men then the employer might as well be on Mars as far as black men are concerned. This finding of the overall job density not mattering for black men is what one would find if black men were facing anti-black discrimination in the labor market.

Returning once again, to the issue of high-school dropouts or the "less-educated," Hellerstein et al. state, "less-educated blacks do live in areas where there are many jobs held by less-educated whites." In fact, they find that the average black male high-school dropout lives in a neighborhood where four non-black male high-school dropouts are working for every resident who is a black male high-school dropout (Table 3). Also, the average employment rate for these black male high-school dropouts is under 50 percent. The authors observe, "This suggests that the problem may not be a lack of jobs at appropriate skill levels where blacks live, but a lack of jobs that are available to blacks" (16). If discrimination is a major factor in black men's unemployment rate, education alone will not fix it.

Hellerstein et al. conduct an interesting simulation. They estimate the effect on black male employment rates of black male high-school dropouts moving from an average black neighborhood to an average white neighborhood. This is the proposed solution to the black male jobs crisis that emerges from the spatial mismatch hypothesis. By their calculations, the average employment rate for black male high-school dropouts is 46 percent. (The average for white male high-school dropouts is 69 percent.) The move to an average white neighborhood is estimated to increase the black male high-school dropout employment rate to 48 percent--2 percentage points--not much change.

In 1967, the black unemployment rate was about twice the white unemployment rate. In 2009, the black unemployment rate is about twice the white unemployment rate. As long as we pretend that this stubborn fact has nothing to do with anti-black discrimination, nothing will change.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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