State of black Oregon: precarious
Sharon Peters, who has a daughter headed to college a son who’s a senior in high school, waits at the state WorkSource Central Metro office in North Portland. She’s looking for work, but can’t find it. Black Oregonians are twice as likely to be unemployed as white Oregonians.
Take a moment and consider the havoc Oregon’s record-level 12.2 percent unemployment rate has wreaked across the state. Hard-working people jobless for months. Homes lost and cars repossessed. Safety nets evaporated.
Now imagine that what is now the third-highest state unemployment rate in the nation has been your community’s jobless rate for the past 30 years. And that during this economic freefall the unemployment rate could be 20 percent or higher.
This is the reality for black Oregonians.
“If Oregon’s unemployment rate is considered a crisis, then the black community has been in crisis for years, ” says Marcus Mundy, president of the Urban League of Portland. “It’s a scary place right now because when things go bad for everyone, it’s exponentially so for black folks.”
This week, the depth of that crisis will become clear as the Urban League releases its first assessment in 17 years of how the state’s tiny black population — smaller than four sellout crowds at the Rose Garden — fares in Oregon.
The civil rights organization brought in educators, policy specialists and academics to research and document key areas of black life and hired the consulting firm ECONorthwest to collect data.
The study reveals a community that falls near or at the bottom of almost every quality of life indicator in the state, including infant mortality, high school graduation, proximity to environmental toxins, incarceration and poverty rates.
But most troubling to advocates is the devastation that the financial disaster has wrought on the state’s black population that already struggles with a poverty rate more than twice the state average.
The unemployment rate for African Americans in Oregon has consistently been double that of white Oregonians, even in good times. Black unemployment probably is now close to 24 percent.
Black Oregonians are losing homes and wealth in what is nationally projected to be the largest loss of black wealth in U.S. history, according to a national report.
“The effects are very devastating in a community where this high of a percentage are out of work,” says Karen Gibson, an urban studies professor at Portland State University who wrote a piece on employment for the report. “It’s like an invisible, silent disaster. How can they maintain their family, start a business, be a role model?”
When the Urban League of Portland moved to take new stock of the state’s black population, the financial disaster had not yet dug in its heels in Oregon.
The national Urban League issues an annual State of Black America, but the local chapter has channeled its energy in recent years into rebuilding after years of turmoil and dysfunction.
Discuss:To discuss this article or talk more about race, go to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ race blog: oregonlive.com/race
Read the report:
The Urban League of Portland releases the State of Black Oregon report Monday. Read it online at www.ulpdx.org
Housing or foreclosure assistance: Contact the African American Alliance for Homeownership at www.aaah.org or 503-595-3517
Job search assistance: www.worksourceoregon.org or 800-237-3710
Mundy, a California transplant who came on board as interim president in 2006 and as president January 2008, said he decided the chapter needed the report after running into what he sees as Oregonians’ progressive blind spot: race.
“I kept hearing things that I couldn’t verify, like, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad,'” Mundy says. “We weren’t looking for problems. We were looking for facts. It’s hard to advocate without the numbers.”
As the economic meltdown took its toll, the report gained a new urgency.
“The state of black Oregon is precarious,” says Mundy. “We are on the precipice of turning back many gains of the civil rights movement in a real way.”
Black Oregonians are particularly vulnerable to recession, says Gibson of Portland State.
Because of the state’s history of discrimination and segregation, the population is small and has less wealth and lower incomes than black communities nationally. Black Oregonians found it difficult to enter certain fields and to attend college, Gibson says, so are newer to many professions and therefore among the first to be let go in hard times. Workers also are concentrated in the service and manufacturing sectors, which are lower paying and more likely to cut jobs.
Unemployment figures measure the numbers of jobless Americans who are actively seeking work, but can’t find it.
The state keeps no monthly data on unemployment by race, so the latest figures on black unemployment come from last year, before Oregon’s overall unemployment rate jumped more than 6 percentage points.
But economists say the doubling trend probably is continuing for black Oregonians. A new study lends credence to the high rate.
The Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., released a state-by-state report last week on racial disparities in unemployment, but Oregon’s black population was too small to measure. However, Michigan — suffering like Oregon with anoverall unemployment rate higher than 12 percent — recorded a black unemployment rate of 22.8 percent for the second quarter of the year. That’s close to the peak national unemployment rate during the Great Depression.
Sharon Peters is engulfed in the struggle to find a job. The 45-year-old suddenly found herself searching for work after her husband died in November. She graduated from Spelman College where she studied pre-med, but she hasn’t worked in recent years.
She has networked, stopped by businesses and sent out resume after resume, but hasn’t gotten a single call back. With her daughter headed to college in Los Angeles this fall and her son entering his senior year of high school, the worry shows on her face.
“It’s bad,” she says as she waits at the North Portland unemployment office where she hoped to sign up for a medical certification course. “I’m told I am either overqualified for some jobs and underqualified for others.”
Peters looks at her 17-year-old daughter, Ta’Nia. “I’m really concerned about the future because I have people depending on me.”
An employment specialist calls her back and says her online resume looks good. Then he runs it through a program that matches skills with job openings.
No current matches, the screen says. He gives a sympathetic smile, then says, “That’s not that uncommon given the way the economy is going.”
Unemployment among African Americans in Portland has been worse than for African Americans in every major West Coast city and the nation as a whole since at least 1979.
And even for those who’ve tried to beat the odds through education, a college degree provides little buffer.
“The unemployment rate for blacks with some college education is consistently higher than whites who dropped out of high school,” says William Darity, a professor of public policy, African American studies and economics at Duke University. “For folks who think that discrimination is passe, I don’t know how they explain that.”
In April, the unemployment rate among African American college graduates nationally was 7.2 percent, nearly twice as high as that of their white counterparts and significantly higher than that of Hispanics and Asians with four-year degrees, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The impact, Darity says, is a population in which many are unable to get a foothold in the American dream.
“It damages the progress that has been achieved by some segments of the black population that we call the middle class,” he says.
Don Wesley is one of those people.
In May, after nearly 24 years with Nike, Wesley went to work only to leave a few hours later, carrying a box brimming with the contents of his desk. He had known layoffs were coming as Nike trimmed its staff. But he had been told not to worry.
“In conversations with my boss, I was thinking I should be OK,” he says. “Then I was told as part of the reorganization I was not being retained.”
Wesley’s carefully ordered world crashed — the one he had constructed since he graduated with a business degree from Memphis State University.
He was born 52 years ago in Birmingham, Ala. His mother, who worked as a domestic for white families, pushed her four children to college after Wesley’s father died when he was 6.
Wesley joined Nike in Tennessee and worked his way through the ranks when a promotion brought him, somewhat reluctantly, to Oregon in 1996. “As white as it is now,” he recalls. “It was whiter back then.”
Wesley made a life for himself here. Bought a house. Raised his kids. Spent frugally and saved lavishly.
“The only thing I’ve done for the last 23 years is get up and go to work and do a good job like I was raised to do — then suddenly Don Wesley, who’s been working since he was 14 years old, doesn’t have a job,” he says. “I broke down. I carried my boxes to my car, cried a little bit, then came home and cried a little bit, drank a beer, and cried a little more.”
Even though he has a daughter in college, Wesley is OK for now. He got a severance package from Nike, where he worked with computers. But as weeks without work have turned to months, he worries that the comfortable life he’s built could slip away.
“We’re going to be OK,” he says. “But if I haven’t found a job in a couple of months, it may be a different story.”
And then there’s that nagging feeling.
“Even in the professional ranks, you still have the old boys club,” he says. “I’m not saying that’s what happened to me, but you get into circles of influence and we might do a good job but not necessarily get in those circles. And if there are only five slots and there’s five people in the circle and you’re not one, then you’re out. I don’t know if it’s racial or not, but where it is race is whether we get invited into those circles.”
The scope of inequities between black Oregonians and the rest of the state’s residents aren’t a simple matter of individuals making bad choices, Mundy says.
The Urban League contends the problems are systemic — and has a list of recommendations that it plans to push with local and state government officials to change the system. Among them:
As the state works on its economic stimulus, ensure racial minorities get job training and work, particularly with green and infrastructure jobs.
Reform welfare programs so people receiving assistance don’t lose benefits when they want to work.
Make sure African Americans get equal access to business loans and government contracts.
The group also wants the state to expand its earned income tax credit to help people transition out of poverty; strengthen laws and enforcement concerning predatory lending; preserve affordable housing; and help more African Americans buy homes.
The report will set the Urban League’s agenda for the next two years.
“It’s oxymoronic for Oregonians to call themselves progressive and be aware of the facts in this report — they obliterate the notion that we are post-racial,” Mundy says. “This is not a progressive state if it continues to let this exist. I want them to be as outraged about this as I am.”
— Nikole Hannah-Jones; email@example.com