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Making a living while black [Commentary]

Though we've narrowed the racial divide since the days of segregation, the economic divide between whites and blacks has been remarkably persistent for the last 40 years. We live in a nation in which if you're black, you likely earn less, have less wealth and are less likely to hold a job than someone who is white. This Labor Day, let's take a moment to reflect on the dangers of trying to make a living while black in the United States.

We should be shocked by the fact that the unemployment gap between African-Americans and whites is virtually unchanged from that of 40 years ago. If you're black, you're still twice as likely as a white person to be unemployed, virtually the same gap as in 1972, according to government statistics. In Baltimore, you're even a bit worse off, according to a recent study by the National Urban League; the black unemployment rate of 15 percent there is more than double the white rate of 6 percent.

Once employed, working while black is risky behavior. African-American workers are likely to earn less than whites — black weekly wages are 78 percent of white wages. This affects not only black workers, of course, but entire families. The median family income for America's black workers is 60 percent of white workers, and in Baltimore, it's only 54 percent. The wealth gap is even worse. White families tend to have a more forgiving financial cushion to protect them in tough times. They're more likely to own their homes, for instance, and to have ample savings. The recent recession hit black families hard. Before the recession, in 2007, whites had 4.3 times as much wealth as blacks. By 2010, the white wealth advantage grew to six times that of African-Americans.

There has been some progress. A larger percentage of the nation's well-paid professionals are African-American — 7.4 percent, up from 5.7 percent in 1990. Still, African-Americans are over-represented in the nation's worst jobs. Far too many black workers struggle to cobble together a series of low-wage, precarious service jobs in order to make ends meet.

We do have tools that can address our nation's persistent racial economic divide. First, we can recognize that we need a new social contract for the 21st century, one that offers a more secure safety net for workers in the kinds of part-time, low-wage jobs that workers of color are more likely to hold. For instance, we should consider building a more robust federal retirement system and child care reimbursements that workers can access across jobs. In addition, we can build a more rational system to handle unemployment. Most of the Western nations with whom the U.S. competes economically have a federal unemployment system. We have a patched-together state system which covers less than half of the nation's unemployed, a deficit that disproportionately affects black workers and their families. Finally, we can restore all workers' freedom to form unions. A union contract helps black workers narrow the racial divide. A black worker with a union made 27 percent more per hour than black workers who weren't in unions, according the government statistics for 2008 through 2013.

"What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Memphis strikers and labor supporters in 1968, days before his death. Baltimore was among the first segregated cities in the nation to desegregate public accommodations, opening up lunch counters and restrooms in March of 1960. Yet today, too many of the city's — and the nation's — African-Americans still lag behind economically. King knew that racism and violence take many forms, and are found in far more places than the end of a gun. This Labor Day — especially as we begin to parse the full meaning of the recent events in Ferguson, Mo. we should carefully consider how to remedy the injury inflicted by our nation's unremitting racial economic divide.

Lane Windham is a PhD candidate in U.S. history at the University of Maryland. Her email is lanewindham@gmail.com; Twitter: @LaneWindham.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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