There are so many reasons to celebrate the life, work, and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today. The dimension I like to elevate is Dr. King’s profound understanding of the importance of full employment to the opportunities of black Americans. Remember, the full name of the March on Washington was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (my bold). A sign some of the marchers held that day told of a simple but powerful equation: “Civil Rights Plus Full Employment Equals Freedom.”
Dr. King’s insight was born of the recognition that racial discrimination by employers is costless in slack labor markets. With abundant excess labor, racist employers could handily indulge their prejudices. But when the job market tightens up and stays tight, that strategy becomes increasingly costly until avoiding non-white hires means an inability to meet consumer demand and leaving profits on the table.
In fact, last year, with overall unemployment near a fifty-year low at 3.7 percent (the average for 2019), the black jobless rate was 6.1 percent, its lowest on record, with data going back to the early 1970s. The average black rate since then was twice last year’s level, about 12 percent.
We mustn’t, of course, overlook the racial context that so motivated King: the 2019 white jobless rate was 3.3 percent, not quite half the black rate, but close to it. As followers of these data know, that ratio has been persistent.
It’s common, though incorrect, to suggest that the elevated black/white jobless-rate ratio is a function of educational differences. In fact, as economist Valerie Wilson often emphasizes, racial unemployment gaps persist at each education level. Using BLS data for those 25 and up for 2018, the ratio of black-to-white unemployment is around 1.5-2 across education groups (with lower ratios for those with more education).
Another way to show this persistence—and belie the claim that it’s all just about educational attainment—is to imagine that blacks had the same educational attainment as whites. That is, calculate the total black unemployment rate for the 25+ group using white labor force shares by education but black jobless rates. The resulting rate for 2018—5.1 percent—is just slightly below the actual black rate of 5.3 percent. In other words, at least by this simple simulation, even if blacks had white attainments, their unemployment would still be well about whites’ 2.9 percent unemployment rate.
Much research has found this gap to be associated with racial discrimination, against which, as Dr. King argued, full employment remains a potent weapon. We thus must ply macro policy get to and stay at full employment for long enough so that those victimized by racial prejudice can get a foothold in the job market. Moreover, in order to push back against last hired, first fired dynamics, we need micro policies to cement these racial gains.
At the macro level, this implies using fiscal and monetary policy to achieve and sustain truly full employment. There’s of course been a sharp debate as to what is the lowest unemployment rate consistent with stable prices. Clearly, based on especially inflation (both realized and expected) but also wage data, we’re not there yet, and I much endorse Fed Chair Jay Powell’s view of being data dependent on this, versus trying to estimate a “natural rate.”
If you must have a number, though, the little exercise above suggests that any target that includes black workers is biased up by racial prejudice. If some employers resist hiring workers of color for prejudicial reasons, that says nothing about the correlation between unemployment and inflation. Thus, a simple metric, purged of this racist impulse might be the white rate. Last year, that was 3.3 percent; 2.7 for the 25+ group. Such rates, for the record, are at least a full point below most estimates of the natural rate.
The tight labor market has helped propel an almost 10 percentage point gain in prime-age (25-54) black employment rates (the comparable white rate is up just 4 points). How do we sustain these gains when the inevitable downturn hits?
By liberal [sic] application of fiscal policy designed to keep recent entrants in the job market! Subsidized employment opportunities, including public jobs if, in a deeper recession, private sector employment is not available. Also helpful would be infrastructure projects with local hiring ordinances, as would apprenticeship programs targeting persons of color.
The key is to be driven by King’s insight that in slack labor markets, the price of prejudice falls. Yes, the larger project must be to prosecute such illegal practices—that’s why we have an EEOC. But while we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy, we must acknowledge that his work is far from complete, a fact that is glaringly obvious in the age of Trump. And one way to fight back, as Dr. King taught us, is through the relentless pursuit of racial justice and opportunity through full employment labor markets.