Official Unemployment Data Minimizes Racial Disparities

Although no compilation of data, sampled from a nation of 300 million can be perfectly precise, it seems fair to insist that the data not obscure obvious facts about which the public should be aware. Sadly, the way the U.S. government has long collected its information on things like unemployment, poverty, wages and other social/economic indicators has done just that: specifically, it obscures the depth of the racial disparities endemic to the nation.

So, for example, most government data collected by the Census Bureau or Labor Department, among other agencies, is broken down by racial category (white, black, Asian, and occasionally American Indian/Alaskan Native), and then separately by Hispanic ethnicity. You can notice in the footnotes to most government tables that “Hispanics can be of any race,” since the term Hispanic does not refer to a separate “racial group.” What this means, in data collection terms, is that the other “racial” group data totals will include the Hispanic/Latino numbers. In other words, if you were to add together the white, black, Asian and Hispanic numbers for something like “number of persons unemployed” or “persons living in poverty,” or “persons in the workforce,” you would end up with a number that was larger than the total number of persons in those categories (typically to be found at the top of each table), because the Hispanic numbers would be, in effect, counted twice.

The reason this matters should be obvious. If you are a researcher interested in examining the extent of racial disparity in the U.S., and comparing the well-being of whites as contrasted with those to whom we loosely refer as “people of color,” you would need to make sure that the “whites” you were looking at in the data were not Hispanic. After all, if Hispanics face discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, culture, color and language barriers (and of course they do, especially in this era of anti-immigrant sentiment), and if Hispanics generally have higher unemployment and poverty rates, as well as lower median incomes than whites generally (which they do), then to have Hispanics folded in with the white racial numbers will distort the economic situation facing “real whites” (meaning those who are not classifiable as people of color and thus potentially subjected to racism on that basis). The government calls these “real whites” non-Hispanic whites, and in some data tables, there will be a category for this group. But oftentimes, especially in monthly or quarterly data (as opposed to annual Census Bureau estimates), this category is not broken out separately. So, in order to get an accurate picture of the white/person of color divide, we would need to break the data out ourselves, by extracting from the white totals, all those whites who are also Hispanic and thus, potentially subjected to the lesser opportunities that often befall people of color in the U.S.

But how to do this? Well, as a general rule, roughly 92% of all Hispanics in these kinds of government tables, are racially grouped in the white category. Between 5-6% are classified as black (often Dominicans, and others from the Caribbean), and the rest are split between Asians and indigenous/native peoples. You can see this breakdown for yourself by looking at any table that does include a breakout section for non-Hispanic whites (like with typical census tables), and subtracting the numbers for non-Hispanic whites from the larger number for “whites,” generally. This difference will represent Hispanics classified as white. Then, by examining the numbers provided for Hispanics, generally, you can determine what percentage of the overall Hispanic group were classified as white. For instance, if the number of non-Hispanic whites in the population was 190 million, and the number of overall whites was 229 million, this would mean than 39 million “whites” were Hispanic. If the overall numbers of Hispanics were 42 million, 92.85 percent of all Hispanics would have been classified as white in that table.

Applying this general rule regarding how Hispanics are racially apportioned in government data, reveals some interesting facts about racial disparity in employment and unemployment. Indeed, it indicates that the official data significantly obscures the extent of existing white/non-white disparity.

In September 2010, for instance, the raw data tables from the Department of Labor, compiled in Employment and Earnings, October 2010, suggest the white unemployment rate for September was 8.7%, the Hispanic/Latino rate was 12.4% and the black rate was 16.1%. Even this level of disparity would be alarming, indicating a black unemployment rate that is fully 1.85 times the white rate (or 85% higher). But in fact, the disparities are larger than that. The data, as presented, artificially inflates the white unemployment numbers by including in the overall numbers, about 92 percent of all Hispanics. Once Latinos are broken out of the white totals, the non-Hispanic white unemployment rate falls to a little less than 8% (7.97% to be exact), meaning that the black-to-white unemployment multiple climbs to a full 2:1 ratio, and the Latino-to-white ratio settles at 1.56 to 1. (Table A-4)

If you’d like to verify my claim here, you can do these calculations yourself fairly easily by following these steps:

1. Looking at Table A-4, multiply the raw numbers of Hispanics in the civilian labor force by .92;
2. Subtract the resulting number from the raw numbers for “whites” in the civilian labor force. This leaves you with a raw number for non-Hispanic whites in the labor force;
3. Multiply the raw numbers of unemployed who are Hispanic by .92;
4. Subtract the resulting number from the number of “white” unemployed, leaving a raw total for non-Hispanic white unemployed. Finally,
5. Divide this last number by the number of non-Hispanic whites in the labor force. The resulting percentage is the “real white” unemployment rate.

Once we compare persons with similar levels of education and in the same age cohorts, things don’t get any better. For instance, when looking only at persons 16-24, with high school diplomas (and no college), after removing Latinos from the white category, the white unemployment rate for this group stands at 16.7%. Although this is unacceptably high to be sure, it pales in comparison to the 39.1% rate for similarly educated and aged African Americans. For this cohort, the black-to-white unemployment ratio is 2.3 to 1. And for 16-24 year olds with college degrees or better (meaning, mostly new graduates between, say 21-24), although the disparities are not quite as large, they are still jarring. Although the white unemployment rate for this group is listed as 9%, once Hispanics are extracted from the totals, the rate falls to 7.8%, compared to 11.8% for similar African Americans: a rate that is 51 percent higher than the rate for young white college grads (or a ratio of 1.5:1). (See Table A-16).

For those who are 25 or older, with only high school diplomas, the black unemployment rate is 14.6%, or 1.83 times the rate for whites (at 7.98%) once Hispanic whites are extracted from the data. For those who are 25 or older with college degrees, the black unemployment rate is still 7.5% (almost as high as the rate for whites this age who never went to college), and this is a full 90 percent above the comparable 3.97% rate for college educated whites (a ratio of 1.9:1). (Table A 17).

There are several lessons to draw from this data:

1) Even as millions of people of all races are hurting in this economy, let us not forget that some are still being hit harder than others, and the relationship between color and the degree of hardship is still strong, as it has always been;

2) Despite conservative claims to the contrary, people of color are not getting all the good opportunities, and are not benefitting from any kind of “reverse discrimination” against whites. After all, were that the case, black folks with college degrees would be better off than whites with degrees, or at least as well off, or at least gaining on those whites. But they aren’t. They are falling further behind, qualifications notwithstanding.

3) The United States is not an equal opportunity society that rewards hard work and effort equally. The payoff to education, for instance, is widely disparate based on racial identity, which would not be true if the nation were truly a meritocracy. And note, the differences in payoff to education cannot be explained — as some try to do — by pointing to widely divergent courses of academic study or preparation on the part of blacks, as opposed to whites. So it is not the case, for instance, that black folks are all majoring in subjects that don’t pay off in the market, while whites are taking more exacting class loads. With few exceptions — as any glimpse at Department of Education data indicates — the majors for whites and blacks are roughly identical, percentage wise. Although whites and Asians are far more likely than African Americans to major in Engineering, only a small percentage of whites and Asians major in these subjects (around 7 percent or so), so this differential cannot explain substantial employment or earnings gaps.

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