Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images

Study: Black college grads have double the unemployment rate

More than half of black college graduates are underemployed, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research

At age 33 and boasting an Ivy League graduate degree, Kitama Cahill-Jackson never thought he’d end up a security guard.

But after years of layoffs and coming in second in job interviews, the Emmy Award–winning documentary filmmaker took the job.

Cahill-Jackson dreamed of a career as a news producer. But now, after years of unsuccessfully searching for journalism jobs, he said he can’t even look at the news.

“When I got to work at 4:30 in the morning, I would listen to NPR. I don’t listen anymore because it makes me sad. That’s the career I didn’t have,” he said.

“I don’t read the paper because it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that I put on this uniform every day and come in here, and I’m not seen as a professional. I worked so hard academically, and for all of that, to work at a job that only requires a GED.”

Cahill-Jackson is among the more than half of black college graduates who are underemployed, according to a study (PDF) released by the Center for Economic Policy and Research this month.

Recent black college grads ages 22 to 27 have an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent, more than double the 5.6 percent unemployed among all college grads in that demographic and almost a threefold increase from the 2007 level of 4.6 percent, before the Great Recession took its toll on the U.S. economy. More than half of black graduates, 55.9 percent, are underemployed.

Even for those who enter the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, areas where grads are the most needed and paid the highest, African-Americans still have a 10 percent unemployment rate and a 32 percent underemployment rate.

The study’s authors blame racism, a faltering economy and an unequal playing field.

“We live in a racist society,” John Schmitt, one of the authors, told Al Jazeera.

“We internalize a lot of views about the way people are that are deeply embedded in a lot of our economic and social policies. It’s extremely complicated, but the first step is that we need to acknowledge that we have a problem.”

Black unemployment has been nearly double that of the national average for years.
Courtesy: Center for Economic Policy and Research

While unemployment for blacks has almost always been higher than the national rate, the recession took an especially harsh toll, with an unemployment gap between blacks and the national rate growing from about 4 percentage points to nearly 6 points. And even for those who have jobs, the moribund economy has come with a financial cost.

“The old adage that sometimes nonblack folks are not always as familiar with but all black people are is that you have to work twice as hard to get half as much,” said Tressie McMillan Cottom, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University.

“That’s something all of our parents have always told us, and it has been so fairly consistent.”

Cottom said that it’s widely known that blacks have a higher level of unemployment than the national rate but that this report is different because it dispels the notion that education shortcomings are keeping black Americans from upward mobility.

“The first thing people say is ‘Oh, well, black people don’t go to school’ or we don’t major in the right fields,” she said. “This report says it doesn’t matter if we go into engineering or the sciences … The report shows that race matters.”

Being that far behind prevents black grads from paying off debt and building wealth and keeps them from gaining the valuable job experience they need to progress in their careers.

More than half of black graduates are working in jobs that do not require a college degree.
Courtesy: Center for Economic Policy and Research

Alise Graves, 26, graduated from the University of Maryland in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature and a minor in Arabic. Graves said her goal was to work for a nonprofit organization so she could gain professional experience and pursue her long-term goal of working for the United Nations.

After studying abroad in El Salvador, Egypt, Israel and Palestine and with her extensive language skills, she said she thought she would be able to find employment after graduation, but so far, she has not been able find a job. Now an unpaid intern, Graves said the abysmal employment statistics were not surprising.

“There are not a lot of black faces that work in my office. Out of the 60 interns, there are only two black people, including myself, and if these are just the unpaid internships, I can only imagine the salaried positions,” she said.

“It’s really frustrating. You can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. I went to college to get a degree so I can get a job, and I don’t have a job to pay for this degree. I don’t want to think that my skin tone is holding me back, so I’ve just been looking at it in terms of skill set, experience and education.”

Graves pointed out that family background and the level of wealth and someone is born into also play roles.

“I come from a generation where I’m the first black woman in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, and I’m working on my master’s, so my parents can’t really give me advice because they don’t fully understand what I’m going through,” she said.

“Whereas my counterparts, a lot of their parents have master’s degrees and Ph.D.s, so they can almost put their children in a position that can help them start their career.”

For years, a college education has been seen as the gateway to a better future. But with such a disparity in employment rates, that may no longer be the case.

“If that is not working, then what is our mechanism for upward mobility?” asked Schmitt.

Cottom put it another way. “This is the problem in thinking that education can solve all the issues created by racism,” she said. “It’s a great thing, but it cannot be our single solution for every economic and social problem. We have to do more.”

Cahill-Jackson and Graves have both decided to return to school in the fall. Graves is pursuing her master’s in the hopes more education will make her more desirable to employers, but Cahill-Jackson is changing careers. He wants to be a social worker.

He knows taking on more debt could be risky for him, but it’s better than staying where he is now.

“There’s a part of me that is hoping maybe this time it will work out,” he said. 

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