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The Black unemployment rate is consistently twice that of white workers. Here's why

A surge in hiring last month far exceeded expectations and kept the unemployment rate at a near-historic low -- but the strong performance didn't benefit everyone.

The unemployment rate among Black men jumped to 5.3% in January, rising from 4.6% over the previous month, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Labor on Friday.

The divergent fates of Black and white workers last month exemplify a broader disparity in employment between the two groups that stretches back more than 50 years.

Since the U.S. first collected such data, in 1972, the Black unemployment rate has consistently stood at levels twice as high as the unemployment rate among white people. The relationship has undergone occasional shifts up or down but quickly returned to a level of two to one.


"There is no other relationship in the labor market that is nearly this consistent and stable," Valerie Wilson, the director of a program on race, ethnicity and the economy at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, told ABC News.

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"Employment equity is essential to racial and economic justice because work is essential," Wilson added. "It's people's ability to provide for themselves and their families."

The ironclad disparity owes to continued discrimination in the job market, as well as a persistent racial disparity in educational attainment and professional networks, among other factors, economists and advocates told ABC News.

Racial differences in the unemployment rate stem in large part from ongoing discrimination that influences choices made by companies about which workers to add or lay off, economists told ABC News.

Many economists use a shorthand to describe the conditions endured by Black workers: first fired, last hired.

"Discrimination still exists," Christian Weller, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who studies racial disparities in employment, told ABC News.

Between the late 1980s and mid-2000s, government employment data shows "considerable evidence" that Black workers are among the first ones fired as the economy weakens, according to an economic study published in 2010 in Demography, an academic journal.

When the economy strengthens, meanwhile, Black workers often access jobs only after their white counterparts, Weller said. As demand for workers grows and the supply ebbs, employers turn to Black workers who they may have overlooked under different circumstances.

PHOTO: In this Nov. 8, 2023, file photo, Marc H. Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League, speaks to guests during an event in New York. (Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for National Urban League, FILE)
PHOTO: In this Nov. 8, 2023, file photo, Marc H. Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League, speaks to guests during an event in New York. (Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for National Urban League, FILE)

This phenomenon accounts for recent progress in whittling away at the two to one unemployment ratio amid breakneck hiring over the past two years, Weller added.

As of January, the white unemployment rate stands at 3.4% while the Black unemployment rate sits at 5.3%, a ratio of 1.55 to one, BLS data showed.

"Employers in the past that may have stereotyped or discriminated against African Americans are more willing to hire," Weller added. "The ratio is coming down a bit but you have to squint."

Plus, economists cautioned, the disparity will likely return when demand for workers begins to cool and economic performance dips, bringing the cycle full circle as Black workers stand at greater risk of being fired.

Differences in educational attainment and professional networks also help to account for the unemployment gap, experts noted.

"It's an educational disparity sometimes and a skills disparity sometimes," Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, a civil rights organization, told ABC News, pointing to them as factors that compound the effects of discrimination.

The organization offers job training and facilitates outreach to employers at most of its 92 affiliate locations nationwide, Morial said. To address the disparity, however, such efforts must take place alongside stronger enforcement of discrimination law to prevent discriminatory hiring practices, he added.

"We must work on multiple levels," Morial said.

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The Hidden Genius Project, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California, offers a 15-month program for hundreds of Black male high schoolers across seven cities, teaching them skills such as coding and entrepreneurship.

The program also facilitates mentorship relationships, giving participants an opportunity to build professional networks that many of their white counterparts gain through family and friends, Brandon Nicholson, CEO of The Hidden Genius Project, told ABC News.

While frustrating, the unemployment gap does not diminish the efforts undertaken by members of the Black community to achieve their professional aspirations, Nicholson added.

"Even though we want to turn the faucet on and have a firm pipeline, there's bad plumbing," Nicholson said.

"We continue to create opportunities for our community, especially our young people, to demonstrate their brilliance and what they have to offer," he added.

The Black unemployment rate is consistently twice that of white workers. Here's why originally appeared on