Inequality in modern-day unemployment rates has received considerable attention, including work demonstrating that Black teens, Black women, and Black men’s unemployment in the United States is consistently worse than that of white teens, white women, and white men. Using historic data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), this post sheds light on longer-term trends of this inequality, looking back over six decades.
Tiffany N. Ford
Postdoctoral Fellow - Economic Studies, Future of the Middle Class Initiative
Readily available data from the BLS shows that unemployment rates for Black men and women have been roughly double those for white men and women, respectively, since 1972. These data also show that the unemployment rate for Black men has exceeded that for Black women since 1980 (except for 1987 and 1998). This post reports on unpublished BLS data which demonstrates that the stark inequality in unemployment rates is longstanding: non-white people have had unemployment rates more than double those of white people as far back as 1954. The patterns in unemployment rates for Black women relative to Black men, on the other hand, have shifted over time.
CONTEXTUALIZING THE DATA: U.S. POPULATION FROM 1950 to 2020
Beginning in 1972, the BLS began reporting the unemployment rate separately by sex for Black people, making it possible to assess trends for Black women and men separately. Prior to 1972, BLS collected this data in two broad racial categories: white and non-white, which they referred to as “Black and other.”
I begin by making clear who “Black and other” likely were in the historic BLS data. Figure 1 displays the racial distribution in the U.S. from 1950 to 2020 using data from the decennial U.S. Census and American Community Survey. Because Figure 1 is separated by racialized category, Hispanic/Latino ethnicity is not shown separate from race. According to these data, Black people made up at least 90% of the non-white population from 1950 to 1970. Thus, the previously unreported BLS data for “Black and other” people can be used to make inferences about Black people’s unemployment experience from 1954 to 1971.
Black unemployment by sex from 1954 to 2021
Figure 2 reports the unemployment rates for non-white (or “Black and other”), white, and Black women and men and Figure 3 reports ratios from all available years. Throughout the more than six decades covered in the figure, unemployment rates for non-white people were substantially higher than those of white people, but the size of the gaps—and the rates for women relative to men—have changed some over this period.
According to the historic BLS data in Figure 2, in 1954 the unemployment rate for non-white men (the solid light blue line, 10.3%) was more than double white men’s (the solid grey line, 4.8%); the unemployment rate for non-white women (the dashed light blue line, 9.2%) compared to white women (the dashed grey line, 5.5%) was near double.
Non-white women experienced a higher unemployment rate relative to non-white men from 1962 to 1979, with the largest gap in 1967 of 3.1 percentage point difference. This is distinct from more recent unemployment trends for Black people. Except for 1987 and 1998, the unemployment rate for Black women (the dashed dark blue line) was lower than the rate for Black men (the solid dark blue line) from 1980 to 2021. The largest divergence between unemployment rates for Black men and women can be seen in 2009-2011 where Black men’s unemployment reached as high as 18.4% in 2010 (4.6 percentage points higher than Black women in that year), while Black women’s unemployment peaked at 14.1% in 2011 (3.7 percentage points lower than Black men in that year).
Neither of these more recent peaks reflect the height of Black unemployment in the U.S. In 1983, Black women saw an 18.6% unemployment rate; Black men, 20.3%. These unemployment rates were more than 2.3 times those of white women and men in 1983 (Figure 3). While Black and white unemployment fell in the years following 1983, the Black-white unemployment gap did not. Indeed, Black men experienced unemployment rates 2.6 times those of white men in 1989; Black women, 2.4 times the unemployment rate of white women.
The lowest unemployment rate for Black people in the U.S. can be seen in 2019, with Black men at 6.6% and Black women at 5.6%. Even then, however, unemployment rates for Black men and women were roughly two times those of white counterparts. These data demonstrate that the trend of Black unemployment being double that of white unemployment has endured since 1954 and remains so, even as national unemployment rates fall.
black employment into the future
Black women and men have worked in the United States of America long before national employment and unemployment data began being collected in 1940, but we can only directly track our unemployment experience back to 1972. This blog takes a step toward communicating what many may have already suspected: due to systematic exclusion and discrimination of Black people in the labor market, racism in the education system and throughout U.S. society, Black men and women have endured double the unemployment rates of white men and women since at least 1954.
Racialized and gendered inequality in employment and hiring is a form of oppression that Black people in the U.S. have yet to overcome. Still, it is important to advocate for policies which remove barriers to hiring, like discrimination based on prior criminal record, and ensure that Black workers have fair access to safe workplaces with equal pay where they are treated with dignity and respect. Because, as Derrick Bell asserts, “Continued struggle can bring about unexpected benefits and gains that in themselves justify continued endeavor. The fight in itself has meaning and should give us hope for the future.”
: These data are disaggregated by sex into male and female categories based on BLS available data. There is no third sex category captured by BLS. While sex and gender are distinct concepts, the language of man and woman rather than male and female are used in writing, as is consistent with the work of other intersectional scholars.
: Because the United States consists of far more than Black and white people, the data in Figure 1 do not directly answer the question of what Black women and men’s unemployment was from 1954 to 1971. However, given the lack of more nuanced unemployment data separated by racial category and given that Black people made up 96% of the non-white population in 1950, 92% in 1960, and 90% in 1970, the “Black and other” category is used in this blog as a loose proxy for Black people’s unemployment experience.
: While not shown in Figure 2, I considered how the “Black and other” unemployment rates compared to that of Black people during the years where these data were collected concurrently (1972-2002) to further contextualize my use of the non-white data as a proxy in the previous years. The unemployment rates of Black women and men exceeded those for non-white women and men in each year, however they were similar enough (within 2 percentage points difference) to make this comparison in the absence of more specific data.
Click here to download the appendix.
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Thanks to Beyond Deng and Ember Smith for excellent research assistance. Thanks to the Division of Labor Force Statistics at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for providing the author with these data and helping to make sense of the data history.