The Racial Divide Among Unemployed Illinoisans

RACE AND RECESSION: The Racial Divide Among The Unemployed In Illinois

Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit

The entire nation is watching and waiting for the economy to solidly rebound, and for job opportunities to rebound along with it. But few stand more ready than the people of Illinois, one of the top ten states in terms of unemployment. In April, the unemployment rate in Illinois was 11.2 percent, and within the pool of job seekers, there is a clear racial divide.

A 2009 Illinois report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the unemployment rate for white males last year was 9.9 percent. For black males the same year, the unemployment rate was a staggering 20.2 percent. The double-digit difference in unemployment rates among minorities has some job seekers crying foul.

"When I go in and [apply] for a job, I have all the credentials, but I think the part where it talks about what ethnic race you are, that usually gets me denied," said Jeremy Wilson, 26, an African American resident of the West Side's Austin neighborhood. "Most of us are positive black men...we are married, we have families and it's hard out here."

Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition told the Huffington Post these numbers show that "whites are living in a recession and blacks are living in a depression."

"Fifty-six years ago it was horizontal segregation. We cannot sit side-by-side, cannot drink water side-by-side, cannot go to the hospital in the same room side-by-side...but we removed those walls," Jackson said. "But now it's a floor, not a wall...Some reports indicate we have lost over half of black wealth in the last two years."

While a clear disparity in unemployment rates between black men and white men remains, the recession actually narrowed that gap. A twofold difference is the closest these rates have ever been, with black males usually seeing three to four times the unemployment level of white males. In fact, the current 9.9 percent unemployment rate for white males--the highest in 27 years--represents the lowest unemployment rate black males have had since accurate records began being kept in 1981. The only time the unemployment rate for black males has been at or below 9.9 percent was in 1998 when it was 8.9 percent.

Unemployment rates for black women are only slightly lower than those of black males.

"Looking at those numbers, it's like ok, maybe a white man is going to get a better shot, but I think there [are] a lot of factors beyond 'black male' and 'white male.'" said Kenton Kodner, 28, a white man from Uptown who has been out of work for six months. "Having a diverse workforce is equally a factor. I went up for a job and interviewed, and was one of two finalists and I'm pretty sure they gave the job to a woman."

Kodner, whose wife gave birth since he's been unemployed, said he wished there were a level playing field for all job candidates, but added that his status as a white man has not helped in his job search.

"I need [a job] as much as anyone else," he said.

For Wilson, his next step is to try finding a highway construction job.

"For a black man in the city of Chicago, [the best thing] is to try to get [a job] with the city of Chicago," Wilson said.

However, Robert Bruno, Associate Professor of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, predicts this mentality will cause African American unemployment rates to get worse before they get better.

"When you look at Illinois, there doesn't seem to be any political courage in the state to solve its financial problems," Bruno said. "That's going to mean further retrenchment of public sector work across the board and that will certainly be mirrored in cities like Chicago where there is a large African American and minority population."

Bruno added that, despite the dismal numbers, the black community has continued to seek good jobs in their neighborhoods, mentioning the large number of applicants at the controversial Wal-Mart on Chicago's South Side.

"Unfortunately, there is a history of racial exclusiveness in labor markets that weren't always open to African Americans and people of color, and vestiges of that can linger for a longer period of time," he said.

Rev. Jackson blames unenforced Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws, and said there is "no targeted plan to offset the disparity."

"You need a kind of war on poverty, you need a great society vision that takes into account zones of need now," Jackson said. "Those zones may be inner-city black, may be Appalachian white, may be Native American, may be Latino. There are these zones of pain that are in a depression. It is a state of emergency."

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