Rising Racial and Economic Inequality Threatens Opportunities for Workers of Color
In theory, the U.S. labor market is a meritocracy, where those who work hard are rewarded with good jobs. But the experience for black Americans and other workers of color reflects a very different reality. Currently, black unemployment is twice that of whites, a persistent wage gap exists between black and white Americans, and there remains ongoing occupational segregation by race and gender.
Last week, the Aspen Institute hosted a panel, “Race, Work, and Opportunity in America,” to discuss how the experience of work and opportunities for advancement are remarkably different for workers of color. Business owners, nonprofit leaders, and researchers agreed that the United States has a lot of work to do to ensure that all workers have a fair shot at economic opportunity.
For context, the panel outlined the lack of progress since 1980 in closing long-standing racial gaps in the workplace. While the U.S. labor market has moved past the explicit, institutionalized racism of Jim Crow and other segregationist policies, the panelists argued that “equal opportunity” remains more of an ideal than a reality.
“Change happens rapidly when it happens – because there’s external pressure on firms,” said Don Tomaskovic-Devey, professor of sociology and founding director of the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “But the power doesn’t go on forever. When the political pressure stops, so does progress. Policy is really only the initial step.”
Other speakers pointed out that despite progress at the federal level, problems persist at the state and local levels. As an example of this trend, Ryan P. Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ), noted that in Newark, just 18 percent of all jobs are held by actual residents of the city, who are mostly people of color.
“The system is designed to produce the results we see,” said Haygood. “We make employment seem impossible in urban cities.” NJISJ is working to change that by building a system to connect local residents to jobs, including through the “Newark 2020” campaign, which aims to put 2,020 unemployed residents back to work by 2020.
There was also broad agreement among panelists that the minimum wage is not a living wage. As an employer herself, Debra Plousha Moore, System Chief of Staff and Executive Vice President of the Carolinas HealthCare System, is actively advocating for a $15 minimum wage but said even that may not go far enough.
“It’s really $17.50 that will make the difference,” said Moore. “That will provide access to the middle class and mobility.” She argued that employers have many tools at their disposal to address racial inequity and poverty, including establishing equitable pay structures, creating internal social networks to strengthen employees’ sense of community, and expanding access to education while on the job.
Panelists made several other recommendations to address racial equity in the workplace, including:
- Reframe the conversation to focus on how employers, rather than workers, can change.
- Invest in leadership development, mentoring, and education.
- Focus advocacy and attention at the local level, where change can be most feasible and effective.