Last August, on the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington for JOBS and Freedom,” I wrote this post in remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and in particular, his advancing of full employment to the top of his civil right agenda. Given the importance of the theme of full employment to this blog, birthday salutations to the great man, along with a graph, are warranted.
Dr. King, toward the end of his life, clearly recognized the role that full employment played in providing economic opportunity for African-Americans. The Selma boycott in which he was instrumental tapped the economic clout of the black community. Yes, a large part of his life’s work was to convince racists of their spiritual corruption, but he was not about to wait for their enlightenment to make progress.
Essentially, full employment conditions raise the cost of discrimination. It’s “cheap” and easy to discriminate when there are a lot more workers than jobs. But when labor demand outpaces labor supply, racist employers risk leaving profits on the table if they indulge their racism to avoid hiring minorities when they need them to meet demand.
The figure plots the ratio of white to black employment rates against the overall unemployment rate. That ratio has never been ‘1’ but a) it’s clearly cyclical, moving up and down with the jobless rate, and b) it hits its low-points when unemployment is very low. Both in the early 1970s and in the latter 1990s, the jobless rate was at or even below the full-employment-unemployment rate (NAIRU), and the white/black employment ratio was at its lowest.
Those of us pulling for full employment may not always remember that we’re carrying on in the tradition of Dr. King, but today seems like a good day to remind us.