We need a vaccine for false narratives about racial disparities: Taking statistics with a dose of history and context will bolster economic and racial justice for Black workers

Key takeaways:

  • We need new narratives around Black economic disadvantage.
  • In today’s heightened public awareness of racial inequalities, the ways we talk about racial economic disparities shape the solutions we develop for those disparities—and whether we consider disparities as problems worth solving at all.
  • Americans have historically had a tendency to individualize both successes and failures—that is, to look at groups of individuals and assume their outcomes are just the combined result of individual decisions, something known as “methodological individualism.” It fails to account for the ways that structural features of the U.S. economy narrow the options for Black workers and their families.
  • In this blog post, I offer tools for gaining the deeper understanding of statistics that allow us to actually tackle the problems of inequity with impactful solutions instead of explaining them away.

Black workers disproportionately experienced the darkest side of 2020, both in terms of health and labor market outcomes—a reality that was not unexpected.

Researchers, advocates, and activists have spent years pointing out that Black Americans are more likely to have the health conditions that significantly increase the mortality rate of COVID-19 infection. We have known for years that Black American households have a fraction of the wealth that white American households do, meaning that in the event of an economic shock they would be less resilient, more likely to default on loans, and unable to draw upon savings to pay rent, possibly leading to evictions.

The last 50 years of labor market data have given us two recognizable facts:

  1. The Black unemployment rate is consistently around double the white unemployment rate under normal economic conditions.
  2. Black workers find employment more slowly, especially in the wake of an economic downturn.

And we knew that occupational segregation left Black workers disproportionately employed in more precarious forms of service work, with lower pay and less ability to negotiate the conditions of their work.

That’s why, when the pandemic hit, it was obvious on whom the brunt of the damage would fall—the same vulnerable groups who always face the worst of our crises. We simply have not prioritized the outcomes of those groups in our infrastructure planning—that is, we have not valued Black life and well-being to a great enough extent to preempt or prevent its loss.

There are several reasons why we as a country may have collectively failed to prioritize the protection of Black life—from abject animosity toward Black people, to a “zero-sum” understanding of governmental support that views relief for one group as necessarily taking from another.

One reason worth considering in the context of policy changes is that our collective understanding of Black social and economic plight is misinformed.

We must disabuse ourselves of the idea that the way to fix racial economic disparities in this country is to fix Black people—to train them more, to get more of them into college, to teach them financial literacy, to improve their health behaviors. It is not that these strategies can’t be beneficial at the level of the individual, or perhaps even good for their own sake. It’s that promoting these as the solution to the problems Black people as a group face relies on the inherent assumption that Black people are somehow different (and deficient) compared with other groups.

The tendency to individualize both successes and failures—that is, to look at groups of individuals and assume their outcomes are just the combined result of individual decisions made by members of that group—is one of the most pervasive tendencies in the American understanding of social and economic phenomena.

When we see white households consistently have more wealth at the median than Black households, for example, the American mindset leads people to assume that there must be something particularly efficient about the way white households manage their finances, or something deficient about Black people or Black culture.  It leads us to hyper-analyze Black behavior, and to ask questions like “What can we do to teach Black people to better manage their money?” rather than “What circumstances led one group to be so much wealthier than others?” The academic term for this frame of thinking is methodological individualism. It plagues our understanding of racial inequality, especially when it comes to the economy.

(Related Webinar Achieving Economic and Racial Justice for Black Workers: Policy Priorities for 2021 and Beyond.)

Here I want to provide something like a vaccine for individualist thinking—a framework that will allow people to recognize the tendency when they see racial disparities being reported and provide them with an alternative way to understand what they are seeing.

Key to this is the understanding that statistics do not speak for themselves.

For example, one can look at the unemployment rate in a given month, see that the Black rate is nearly double that of the white rate, and assume that it’s simply because Black workers are lazy or less willing to work for low pay relative to government benefits. But we can think deeper and realize that to be counted among the unemployed you must be searching for work.

We can dig deeper into the historical record and learn that the unemployment rate for Black workers has nearly always maintained this 2-to-1 ratio with white unemployment. We can look closer at the data and see that Black workers are less likely to be employed at every level of education, and that when employed they are more often employed in jobs that do not utilize their skill set—particularly Black women workers. We can dig into the research literature and see studies showing that when identical resumes are sent out with the only difference being an either Black or white coded name, white resumes receive more callbacks, even when the white resumes have a criminal record associated with them.

We can challenge false narratives about racial disparities by following the process outlined above:

  • seeking a clearer understanding of what statistics are reporting;
  • trying to grasp the history behind each statistic;
  • and recognizing the context around each statistic.

This process of critical engagement with the data reveals the reduction of group-level statistics to individual deficits to be nonsense, unless one assumes that Black workers are somehow deficient en masse. When we reject this racist assumption, we are left with an alternative explanation: that our economic system produces worse outcomes for Black workers because of its structure.

Our economy is structured the way that it is because of a series of political economic decisions made across its history—conscious rules made and unmade, opportunities extended to certain groups and kept from others, and injustices allowed to persist without recourse or redress given to the victims of those injustices.

What, then, are the policy solutions that can lead toward economic justice for Black workers?

  • In the short term, we must focus on relief and on protecting the front-line and essential workers who are keeping this economy running. Distributing the COVID-19 vaccines in an equitable way, prioritizing those with preexisting conditions that can lead to serious complications and those in occupations with a high exposure risk, will directly benefit Black workers. We should also ensure that employers provide access to personal protective equipment (PPE) on the job and take the necessary precautions to protect their workers. That may mean requiring all customers to wear masks upon entering places of business, providing free access to hand sanitizer for employees and customers, and issuing strict social-distancing guidelines. Our current patchwork set of norms and laws regarding mask-wearing puts workers at serious risk.
  • The recently passed American Rescue Plan takes significant steps toward healing the damage caused by the pandemic recession, particularly in its extensions to unemployment insurance, expansion of the child tax credit, and the aid provided to state and local governments. While many of these fixes are unfortunately temporary, they should go some way toward improving conditions for workers, at least in the short term.
  • In the medium-to-long term, we must focus on both healing from the damage of the crisis and shoring up our infrastructure to preempt the next once-in-a-lifetime event. Our goal should be an economy in which all workers are prepared and protected, not just the most fortunate among us. One policy that would disproportionately benefit Black workers in this regard is raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. Black workers are more likely to work at or below the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, but also much more likely to receive a raise if the minimum wage rises to $15. A higher wage floor would improve the bargaining positions of all workers—particularly those in the South, where wage growth has been sluggish for decades.
  • Any legislation that could make it easier for workers to form and maintain unions, to give workers a voice in their workplaces to bargain and protect themselves, will also help Black workers.

The leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s recognized that labor rights were a key component of civil rights—to the extent that Black workers are being limited in their ability to organize in their workplaces, the promises of the civil rights era remain unfulfilled. Today Black workers are the most heavily unionized racial/ethnic group in the labor force. Where Black workers are given the opportunity and tools to unionize, they take advantage of those and strengthen the labor movement. It is not a coincidence that the regions of the country where policymakers and employers are most hostile to unionization efforts are also those where Black workers are most heavily concentrated—namely, the South.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which passed in the House in March, is one such example of legislation that would make it easier for workers who want union representation to organize. The PRO Act amends the National Labor Relations Act and makes it more difficult for employers hostile to unions to exploit shortcomings in the law to suppress and delay negotiating with their workers. It would create consequences for employers who interfere with workers’ right to organize and hold elections, and level the playing field between workers and employers in the campaigning process that leads to the establishment of a union.

Over the long term, achieving true economic and racial justice for Black workers will require bold polices that transform our economic system in such a way that it reflects equity as a priority moving forward. True employment equity would require a federal job guarantee, such that every person who sought employment would have a job provided to them by the government. True health equity would, as a start, require that health care be guaranteed to all as a right. Universal asset-building programs like “baby bonds” and the expansion of federal housing programs could be implemented to move us toward equity in assets across groups—that said, the history of the racial wealth gap and its maintenance over time suggest that a direct reparations program may be necessary in that regard.

And so I return to the “how do we fix Black people” fallacy. Black people are just people who have been made to endure a litany of injustices across generations that, were they experienced by other groups, would leave those groups in the same state. The solutions then must be focused on stopping those injustices where they exist today (in the labor market, criminal justice system, academia, the financial/banking system, etc.), redressing the harm caused by the past, and rebuilding our institutions, armed with the knowledge that will prevent them from reoccurring in the future.

If racial and economic justice are our goals, then we must reframe both our thinking about racial disparities and our policy priorities. We are at a unique moment in history, where our collective awareness of racial injustice may meet our willingness to enact change at a high enough level to translate into policy changes. If we can challenge conventional understandings of Black plight, protect Black workers, and give them a real voice in the workplace, then achieving those goals may just be possible.