Marshawn Wolley

Marshawn Wolley

The U.S. economy is sick due to a global public health pandemic, but we aren’t even talking about the virus that creates Black economic disparities and its infection of labor markets — and it has been time for a vaccine.

The late Bill Crawford used to say, referencing Visit Indy and our local hospitality industry, “when they get a cold, we get pneumonia.” He understood that the over 80,000 full-time equivalent jobs supported by tourism throughout the region included a lot of Black people.

Observing the teams of young Black males putting together the convention displays, or perhaps your server at a downtown restaurant — if you go, are highly visible.

Unseen are the Black and Brown people who clean hotel rooms — folks don’t generally really notice the race of folks serving them at a downtown event either at the convention center, hotels or one of the stadiums.

A lot of Black folks make their living in service industries like hospitality that have been shut down due to the necessity of social distancing.

We are being hit harder collectively by this economic downtown.  

That’s anecdotal observations but what are the symptoms?

The latest available SAVI data suggests that Black unemployment in Marion County is over two times white unemployment in the county.

Available data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that there was an approximately $32,000 gap between Black and white median income in Marion County. While we have a large white urban poverty problem, the Black poverty rate was nearly three times the white poverty rate in Indianapolis in 2017.

We know that the Black Indianapolis homeownership rate of 33.3% was amongst the lowest among comparable cities and that research by the Center for Research and Inclusion on Social Policy found that areas with more Black and Latinx renters are rent burdened — paying more than 30% of their income on housing in Marion County.

No wonder Indianapolis has the second highest evictions rate in the country according to a 2019 Princeton University study.

From employment rates to income to housing too much of Black Indianapolis was already doing poorly in a so called “healthy” economy.

But even when we look at old diagnosis of the problem — educational attainment in the Black community—we see the stubbornness of this economic affliction.

We talk about Black people being the last hired and first fired but what happens even when we seek to increase our employability through education—the alleged vaccine against unemployment?  

According to an October 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics national study across every level of educational attainment from less than high school, to some college, to college the Black unemployment rate disparities remains stubborn at various levels of educational attainment up to college.

In fact, a white person with an associate degree (2.5% unemployment rate) had a lower unemployment rate than a Black person with a college degree, (2.9% unemployment rate).

And a Black person with an associate degree (4.1% unemployment rate) had a higher unemployment rate than a white person with only a high school diploma (3.5% unemployment rate).  

We not only face disparities inside of educational attainment levels, but we find that white people with fewer credentials have lower unemployment rates than Black people with higher credentials.

Like in health outcomes we aren’t getting the same economic outcomes from the “treatments” everyone else takes to get some immunity against economic shocks.  

Some will look at these stats and argue there are additional factors that must be considered. OK. Fine.

But what does it say about our society that Black labor force discrimination is so embedded in our understanding of labor markets that it is actually taught and discussed as a problem in college economics courses?

In the Black community, folks would say the system is working how it is supposed to — and these Black folks wouldn’t be wrong. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics just released a study that found that 28.8% of U.S. workers surveyed in 2017-2018 could telework, or work from home.

The study also found that while 29.9% of white workers could work from home, only 19.9% of Black workers and 16.6% of Latinx workers could.

Leisure and hospitality industries had the lowest percentage of workers who could work from home.

The Economic Policy Institute observed that only 9.2% of workers in the lowest 25th quartile of income earners can telework.

We know the economy is sick now — but its been unhealthy for the Black community even in good times. 

Yet it seems even the word “Black” is absent in much of our public discourse on economic development in Indianapolis.

People of color, specifically Black people remain extraordinarily vulnerable not only during huge economic shocks like a pandemic — but generally and even in a good economy.

There will be votes on economic stimulus packages at the federal level. There are also some larger local efforts looking at equity in government and “inclusive growth.”

But part of the solution — our own medicine — has to involve our community figuring out how to help ourselves — and one first step is properly diagnosing racism in our economy.

Marshawn Wolley is a lecturer, commentator, business owner and civic entrepreneur. Contact him at marshawnwolley@gmail.com.

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