President Donald Trump was quick to celebrate a surprise fall in the unemployment rate on Friday morning, practically exploding with excitement at the news that in May the jobless rate fell to 13.3% from 14.7% in April.
“These numbers are joyous,” he tweeted, before holding a press conference congratulating himself for what are still historically terrible unemployment numbers ― worse than anything seen during the Great Recession.
There’s just one crucial thing Trump didn’t mention: Black unemployment. The percentage of Black people without jobs hardly budged in May. For African American workers over age 20, the unemployment rate was 16% in May, down from 16.3% the previous month, according to an analysis of Labor Department data from researcher Jasmine Tucker at the National Women’s Law Center. (For Black workers age 16 and up, the unemployment number rose to 16.8%.)
It’s just the latest sign that Black Americans are disproportionately struggling right now while dealing with the triple storm of COVID-19’s health effects, an economy in free-fall, and protests against police brutality sweeping the country.
Drill down into the numbers released Friday, you find that it is Black women in particular who are hurting.
While Black men age 20 and up saw a slight increase in jobs last month, things got worse for Black women, with their jobless rate ticking up to 16.5% from 16.4%, according to a separate analysis from the National Women’s Law Center released Friday.
“Everyone else saw slight improvement in May, but Black women just stagnated,” said Tucker. “It comes back to the racism and sexism they’re going to face in reentering the workforce.”
The issue for Black women is, first, they were disproportionately overrepresented in many of the industries hit hardest by coronavirus-related job losses ― including retail and hospitality jobs in the restaurant and leisure sectors.
And second, now that companies are starting to bring back workers, a double hit of sexism and racism makes it harder for these women to go back to work.
Exacerbating matters, Black women are more likely to be single parents with young kids ― that means they can’t necessarily go back to work yet, with schools and child-care centers closed.
“I think the pandemic has really laid bare a lot of the problems that women and women of color face in the workforce,” said Tucker. “They’re paid less. They’re less likely to have worker protections like paid leave and other benefits.”
The jobs crisis has been terrible for women overall. The unemployment rate for Latinas age 20 and over is even higher than it is for Black women ― though it declined more in May to 19% from 20.2% the previous month.
About 1 in 7 women in the U.S. are unemployed right now, compared to 1 in 9 men, according to the Law Center’s analysis.
In the past, Trump has been happy to tout the Black unemployment rate as a sign of how his administration has been good to African Americans. The White House even put out a press release about it late last year and of course he’s tweeted about it.
Before the pandemic, the Black unemployment rate was a relatively low 5.8%. For white workers it was 3.1%. (Typically Black unemployment is double the rate for white people.)
But the events of the past 12 weeks reveal the emptiness of Trump’s rhetoric around African Americans and the economy.
The pandemic has devastated the Black community. The mortality rate from COVID-19 among African Americans is nearly twice what it is for whites. And in some regions of the country it’s as much as four times as bad.
The job loss has been horrific, too. And it’s compounded by the fact that for Black Americans there’s very little social safety net to fall back on: African Americans are less likely to have savings or wealth to cushion their fall, and have lower incomes than white Americans, as well.
The numbers released Friday are a startling demonstration of what’s been a long-standing truth when it comes to Black workers: In any economic downturn it has historically been African Americans who are last to recover.
That’s partly because discrimination intensifies in a slack job market ― in other words, employers can be “choosier,” i.e., discriminatory, about whom they decide to hire. And Black workers face extraordinary levels of discrimination in hiring.
“When the jobs come back it’s important to look at who is getting those jobs,” Elise Gould, a senior economist at the progressive-leaning Economic Policy Institute, told HuffPost on Thursday before the jobs report came out. “I fear they will again mimic the discrimination of the past. And we won’t see Black workers able to bounce back the way that white workers [do].”
So far, it looks like she was right.