Picking up.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Black Workers Are Gaining in Job Market

Mark Whitehouse writes editorials on global economics and finance for Bloomberg View. He covered economics for the Wall Street Journal and served as deputy bureau chief in London. He was previously the founding managing editor of Vedomosti, a Russian-language business daily.
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Black Americans typically get a raw deal in the U.S. job market. Judging from the employment report released Friday, though, they've recently made some progress in recovering from the 2008 recession.

Overall, the report portrays an economy that, while growing at a moderate pace, still has a lot of healing left to do. The Labor Department estimated that nonfarm employers added 223,000 jobs in April, bringing the three-month average to 191,000. The gains brought the unemployment rate among active job-seekers down to 5.4 percent from 5.5 percent in March. The employed share of prime-age workers, though, held steady at just 77.2 percent as many remained on the sidelines. That's about 3.6 million jobs short of the level that prevailed before the recession.

A breakdown by race shows that some groups have struggled more than others. Blacks, and black men in particular, were by far the hardest hit by the recession. The jobs data suggest, though, that they've lately been catching up. Over the three months through April, the average employment-to-population ratio for blacks aged 25 to 54 stood at a seasonally unadjusted 72.2 percent, just 2.6 percentage points short of its pre-recession level. For black men, the distance to normal was 3.6 percentage points. That compares with 2.8 percentage points for all whites, and 3.3 points for white men. Here's a chart:

The Labor Department's monthly estimates can be volatile and have a large margin of error. Also, the distance to normal understates the predicament of black Americans. The employed share of prime-age black men, for example, was relatively low even before the recession started -- about 77.6 percent over the 10 years through December 2007, compared with 89.0 percent for white men. Beyond that, the Labor Department's definition of the population excludes hundreds of thousands who are in prison.

Racial discrimination undeniably remains an issue in the job market. The tragic examples of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and numerous others illustrate that in many predominantly black neighborhoods, just staying alive and out of jail can be a challenge, let alone getting the education needed to succeed in an economy that increasingly demands advanced skills. In addition, research has shown that blacks have significantly lower chances of getting a callback on a job application, and are paid less than members of other groups when they do find jobs.

That said, the employment picture might finally be improving for some of the country's most disadvantaged. If the trend holds, that will be great news.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net