Why Young, Black Men Can’t Work

By Kai Wright Jun 25, 2014

Editor’s note: Our series "Life Cycles of Inequity" explores the ways in which inequity impacts the lives of black men. Each month, we focus on a life stage or event in which that impact has been shown to be particularly profound. Previously, we focused on implicit bias in the classroom. 

The first thing you notice about Dorian Moody is how easily he laughs. He punctuates conversation on just about any topic with a shy smile and a disarming chuckle. It comes out as a self-mocking accent when he describes his initial boredom with high school. "My mother was like, you can’t fail," he says with a smirk. "Alright, so I’m gonna give you Ds!" It takes the edge off of his raw pride when he describes his later academic revival, which began after his whole family sat him down and warned he’d be "a nobody" if he kept screwing around. And it softens his chiding response when I comment on the peaceful, spring vibe of his Irvington, N.J., neighborhood, on the western edge of Newark. "Well, go up to that corner and see what the Bloods think of that."

Moody’s easy laughter emphasizes his already boyish looks, and together they make him seem even younger than his 21 years. But he’s facing decidedly grown-folks challenges today. 

When Moody graduated high school, he didn’t yet know what he wanted to do with his life; he knew only that he wanted money urgently. "It’s not cool when you’re 18 and you can’t even buy yourself deodorant," he says. "I don’t sit well with that. I wanna be able to provide for myself and my family." He’s the youngest in a family of workers–a brother who’s in security, a sister who’s in daycare, a mom who’s starting a new career in drug counseling at age 69. Moody was eager to chip in, too. And yet, all his ambition notwithstanding, his work life has thus far been shaped by the coincidence of two banal facts: He graduated in the year 2010 and he is a black man.

Today, nearly a fifth of recent high school grads are, like Moody, neither employed nor enrolled in further schooling, according to analysis of federal jobs data by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). "That’s a huge population of young people," says Alyssa Davis, who co-authored the report. "We are in a bad situation for high school graduates," she deadpans.

It’s a bad situation with uniquely dire ramifications for young black men, who even in good years were already falling out of the workforce in disturbingly large numbers. Now, as the job market continues to tighten and wages overall continue to fall, black men are being washed even further out of the formal economy by the currents of race and gender that shape so much of today’s work life.

The non-college educated workforce is starkly gendered–women confined to service and caretaker jobs, such as home health aides and domestic workers; men in manual labor roles like construction, trades and what’s left of the manufacturing sector. These latter, male-tracked jobs are much higher paying, but also more vulnerable to recessions. So sort recent grads by gender, and the rate of people entirely "disconnected" from the economy, as EPI puts it, is particularly striking. Moody and his male peers graduated into the worst downturn since the Great Depression, and one clear measure of its continued intensity is how many of them remain entirely idle four years later. Despite ongoing reports of our current economic recovery, the idle rate among young men still dwarfs that seen at the peak of previous downturns going back to 1991, according to EPI’s report. 

Layer race onto gender and, statistically at least, things get bleaker still for Moody and his classmates. As he left school in 2010, he was among more than 40 percent of black high school grads aged 17 to 20 who had no job. That number has inched downward, but it remains at nearly 35 percent–significantly higher than any other race or ethnicity. Federal data isn’t granular enough to measure the idle rate among men in this group, but all other data suggests it is more profound than anywhere else. Take, for instance, the eye-popping statistics we’ve seen about joblessness among young black men for years. Indeed, even before the recession, way back in the boom year of 2004, a congressional study noted with alarm that joblessness among young black men had galloped away from the rest of the country. In New York City, 18 percent of black men were jobless in the year Moody graduated.

So what accounts for these bleak stats? Both inside and out of the black community, conventional wisdom holds that the data reflect the natural order of things, that young, black men like Moody have held themselves back–by not pursuing higher education, by getting in trouble with the law, by nurturing dreams of fast cash through celebrity rather than applying themselves to the slow drudgery of hard work. For many, these are compelling explanations that align with widely shared values about individual agency and the viability of class climbing in America. As President Obama lectured the black men of Morehouse College’s graduating class last year, "One of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is there’s no longer any room for excuses."

But a growing mound of research gives the lie to the notion that black men who fail in the modern economy have brought it upon themselves. Rather, it’s increasingly clear that they have instead been locked out of the male-tracked, skilled labor jobs that, for better or worse, still make the difference between poverty and working-class for many families. Even when accounting for failed personal responsibility, more and more research suggests that white men with similar backgrounds–without a college degree, and even with a criminal record–find far more opportunity than their black peers. One pre-recession study in 2003 even found that white job applicants with criminal records are more likely to get called back than black applicants with identical resumes and no record.

This is an inequity that grows from tangled roots–historic labor market discrimination, ongoing residential segregation, stubborn racial biases among employers. But it’s also one with consequences that stretch out beyond the men themselves, and that will linger long past today’s troubled economy.

Even once Moody and his peers find jobs, the fact that they graduated into a recession will likely stunt their workplace progress permanently. EPI points to prior research that shows people who begin their work lives during recessions earn less than they otherwise would have for 10 to 15 years into the future. This reality, combined with the erasure of black men from the workforce altogether, is likely to intensify a rapidly growing rate of family and childhood poverty in black America–perpetuating generational cycles of inequity ad nauseam. It’s a toxic mix of forces that Dorian Moody is working hard to overcome.

Adult Choices

"My mother actually thought I was gonna go to college for football," Moody recalls of the days leading up to his high school graduation. "But I got too lazy. It was like, ‘Meh, these people are trying to kill each other and they’re not even making money,’" he jokes. Anyway, what he wanted most was to earn money right away, to start pulling his own weight. "For so many years, I watched my friends and my family go through different struggles. And it’s like, I wish I could help them, I really wish I could help them. But it’s hard when you’re just a kid."

Of course, once he’d graduated out of high school and into adulthood, he still wasn’t sure how to get started. He spent a lot of time making music, but he knew that held more promise as a hobby than a job. So with help from his mom, he took a hodgepodge of summer classes at Essex County College. "Mathematics, art, anything! Just taking stuff," he says, laughing at himself. "I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do." Then, while watching television one night, he saw an ad for a school teaching mechanical engineering–working on cars. And Moody knew two things clearly about himself: He liked doing stuff with his hands and he absolutely loved cars. Maybe it was the appeal of the unattained; he walked or took the bus everywhere he went, much like everybody else he knew. He didn’t even have a license. So cars were exotic, the stuff of movies and video games. This was the career for him.

He first checked out Universal Technical Institute, a huge, for-profit vocational school with campuses around the country, including in nearby Exton, Pennsylvania. He was excited, until he saw the five-digit price tag. "And that was just to go out there! Then you had to provide for yourself," he says. "You scratch your head and you’re like, ‘I dunno.’ And my mother was looking at me like, ‘I dunno, I’ll work with you, but I don’t think I can really do that.’ "

He turned next to Lincoln Technical Institute, another for-profit school that felt more affordable, if still a stretch. But he struggled inexplicably to pass the easy entrance exam. He still can’t figure out what went wrong. Maybe he didn’t take it seriously enough, like those early high school days. Or maybe he just choked. Whatever the problem, it was also about this time that his mind turned sharply to more pressing challenges, because his mom suddenly got direly ill. "Everything kind of slowed down for me," he says. 


Moody’s mom’s illness stoked old tensions in the family. Nobody knew who or what to blame, so they blamed each other. She stopped working, and money grew tight. Things got worse still when her insurance failed to cover the full cost of treatment. "Something about age and brackets and–I never understood it, but they didn’t wanna pay for it. They said they’d pay half," he recalls, with uncharacteristic rancor. "So I was like, OK. I looked toward the streets."

Moody was no stranger to the underground economy that has long thrived in Irvington and Newark. A wide range of hustles, be they illicit or just off-the-books, fill the jobs gap in depressed urban centers. The difference for Moody’s hustling now was one of scale. "Anything to get money. Anything," he says. "Around that time a lot of people were doing car jackings, and I got involved in that and got involved in other stuff." It didn’t take long before he was arrested for stealing cars down at Newark’s port. He spent a year in the county jail, a year in which his mother was in and out of the hospital, fighting a gradual, winning battle over her cancer. "I did a bunch of crap and I got in trouble, but I gave my mother that money and she got into that hospital."

It’s clear Moody still doesn’t know what to feel about his choices. He struggles to articulate a confused mix of contrition and defiance. He’s on one hand plainly proud, feeling like he did what he had to do for his mom. But he acknowledges the even she doesn’t understand how he reached the conclusion that stealing cars was the best available option. More to the point, he’s already learned that the choices he made in that year after graduation will shape the rest of his life. "You can’t really erase it. You go on job interviews and they’re like, ‘Do you have a criminal background?’ And I gotta say, ‘Yeah.’ "

Much has been written about the role criminal records play in black male unemployment, particularly among youth. Certainly, the data is plain–as many as one in three black men have felony convictions, and 9 out 10 large employers conduct criminal background checks before hiring. But increasing research suggests that criminal records alone cannot be blamed for the trouble black men have had finding jobs. Rather, sociologists have largely established that the long arm of American punishment does not extend into the job market for white men who make the same youthful mistakes.

Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander and his colleagues have been following a group of 800 people from the Baltimore area since they entered first grade, in 1982, in an attempt to identify the positive forces in the lives of people who grow up in low-income homes. Rather than asking only what limits the well-being of the people in the study, they’ve tried also to look at what propels them into better life experiences, from work to mental health. The study, which began in 1982, notably includes white youth from low-income backgrounds. "We saw this as an uncommon opportunity to compare the experiences of poor whites with African Americans," Alexander explains. "We found really striking differences that privileged the white men of working-class background."

Class Divide

Alexander and his team detail what they have discovered about their subjects’ lives in a new book, "The Long Shadow." Of the many striking findings, two stood out prominently to the research team.

First, education was not a golden ticket out of poverty for those in the study; rather, it appeared only to enhance the privileges of those who were already middle class. Low-income youth of all races in the study pursued higher education widely, but like Moody, they hit insurmountable barriers, ranging from costs to family obligations. Only 4 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree by age 28, compared to 45 percent of the middle-class study participants. "We said, ‘Wow, education isn’t really working for these kids, even though we tell them that’s how to get ahead in life,’" Alexander recalls. "And that’s what turned our attention directly to the folks in the workforce who did not go to college."

Which is where the second striking, if expected findings emerged. The Johns Hopkins researchers discovered a labor market that was also tiered sharply, but by both race and gender, rather than by class. By every measure of workplace success–the age at which people started working, whether they gained full-time employment, what they earned, you name it–the pattern was clear: white men were doing the best and black women the worst, just behind black men. "In sales," the authors write, "whites sell insurance, blacks sell shoes; in protective services, whites work in crime labs, blacks are security guards."

Perhaps most profound were the differences researchers saw when they factored in "problem behaviors"–dropping out of school, doing drugs, getting locked up. Here, Alexander explains, white men of all classes reported far more troubled behavior than anyone else in the study, but black men suffered uniquely harsh, lasting punishment for their mistakes. Among men who’d dropped out of school, for instance, 84 percent of whites were employed full time at age 22. For black men, however, only 40 percent were employed at that age. And while black and white men from low-income families had similarly high rates of criminal convictions, those convictions mattered far more to the lives of the black men. At age 28, 54 percent of white men with a record were employed full time making an average of $20 an hour; among black men with records, 33 percent were employed, making just over $10 an hour, or half that of their white peers.

The overall earnings advantage that working-class white men had over everyone else in the study appeared to come largely from their access to high-wage, blue collar work. "Everybody knows that deindustrialization hit hard in cites like Baltimore," says Alexander. "But there’s still jobs to be had in the skilled construction trades. Buildings are going up. Ships are coming into the harbor to be unloaded. If you need a plumber, you find one." But these jobs are reserved for white men. At age 28, 45 percent of white men from low-income backgrounds were working in construction or other industrial trades, compared to 15 percent of black men and just about no women of any race. Even within this high-paying sector, white men earned on average just about double what black men earned.

What’s also notable is the impact this job segregation appears to have on what’s been called the "feminization of poverty"–or, the fact that huge swaths of the working poor today are women generally, and moms specifically. Much like conventional wisdom on black men hurting themselves with criminal convictions, a common refrain both inside and out of black America is that heterosexual women hurt themselves by having children out of wedlock, or generally refusing to marry. It’s certainly clear that two incomes improve the outlook of all households. But it’s also clear that women earn far less money than men as individuals, even for the same jobs, and particularly among workers without college degrees. And for the women in the Johns Hopkins study, partnering was not uniformly helpful to improving their household bottom lines. Researchers didn’t ask the women about whom they partnered with, but the impact of doing so was starkly disparate. White women who reported being in a union also reported family earnings on par with white men, regardless of what other life factors were added to the equation. However, black women who reported being in a union had family earnings that remained tens of thousands of dollars below that of white men from similar class backgrounds.

So this and similar studies deal real blows to the idea that personal responsibility can resolve our economy’s job and wage inequities. But what "The Long Shadow" perhaps most clearly confronts is the old, false debate about whether it’s race or class that most limits opportunity in the United States. It’s plainly both. Individuals who started life in low-income families faced sharply different early-adult outcomes depending on both their race and gender, and that divergence began right as they left high school.

This fact, of course, begs the larger question: Why? What’s driving this clear disparity?

Network Problems

Dorian Moody and I are standing around his former school’s garage gabbing about cars, but Rodney Brutton needs him to focus, and act fast. Brutton’s just gotten off the phone with an auto shop in Newark that’s looking for people who can take apart engines. That’s precisely the training Moody got in about a year’s worth of study here at New Community Corporation.

Not long after he got out of jail, Moody enrolled with the help of a grant in New Community’s mechanical engineering course, which included a three-month internship working on buses at a nearby garage and nine months of both classroom and shop-floor instruction. In the roughly four months since finishing his studies and racking up some of the certifications that are crucial to working as a mechanic, he’s been pursuing jobs with no success. So Brutton–who runs New Community’s job training programs and is the former director of workforce development for the city of Newark–wants badly to put Moody in this gig. "There’s no reason why Dorian should not find a job," Brutton says. "He has the skill set, the formal training. He has a good demeanor. He has a valid license. Yes, he has a criminal record, but nothing that should get in the way."

And yet. He’s interviewed at Goodyear and Enterprise. He’s filled out dozens of applications online, for Zip Car, Ford, Mercury, Lincoln and gas station garages all over town. Thus far, nothing’s landed. He remains optimistic, and so does Brutton, who’s trying to give Moody and other New Community students the thing that matters as much as training to landing high-wage, skilled labor jobs: Connections. These connections, he says, are what explain the sorts of race and gender disparities seen in the Johns Hopkins study of Baltimore high school graduates.


"It goes back to that support system, that network–I dare say, that level of nepotism," Brutton argues. Before he led the city’s workforce development programs, he also helped lead a project that pried open union jobs for black workers in Newark. "What we found is nearly 60 percent of the union membership were connected to one another in some way, shape, form or fashion. You had the father who was the business manager, the father’s brother was the business agent, and his nephew was in the union." All of which still serves to segregate the workforce, he says. "On any large job, 70 percent of the contractors are white. And who do they hire? They hire their own people."

That reality is born out in the Johns Hopkins data as well. Among the white men from low-income families who were working at age 22, 58 percent said they found their jobs through family connections and just 40 percent said they found work entirely on their own. The opposite was true for their black male peers, among whom 68 percent found work without any connection to family or friends. Alexander and others have looked at this kind of data and noted that it’s a cyclical inequity. The white men in his study were more likely to have fathers and grandfathers who could help them get into the high-wage trades because those jobs were reserved for white men during legal segregation. That privilege is in turn preserved today through residential segregation.

"Everyone understands there are residential enclaves for wealthier whites. But we tend not to think about residential enclaves for working-class whites," says Alexander. "These neighborhoods are also venues for helping people get established." And in a job market as tight as the one Moody and his classmates have graduated into, high-wage, skilled jobs are filled quickly through these family and neighborhood networks. "It’s the most natural thing in the world, in a sense, for people to want to help their friends or family get established," acknowledges Alexander. "Middle class families can do that by helping their kids do well in school. Working class parents can help their kids, too, but it’s more in the nature of helping them get good jobs."

Brutton argues this cycle needn’t persist. He says he’s seen in his experiences in Newark that policy makers can easily disrupt the process by doing two things: Tying development dollars to equity in hiring and pumping money into job training programs, which can give workers not only skills, but connections as well. At New Community, he’s slowly building institutional relationships with local employers, to replace the familial ones his students lack. He notes, however, that federal funding for job training and placement programs like this one has dropped significantly in recent years–leaving more students with pricey, for-profit vocational schools as their only option for getting started.

For his part, Moody’s applying for that engine-repair gig, and anything else he finds. He even tried to activate his own family network, such as it is. His aunt has had the same mechanic for years, and she’s cordial with the man. So she asked him for a job, but there were no openings. That’s as far as Moody’s connections go, but he’s not deterred. "It’s not the end. I’m only 21; it’s not the end for me. I know I’m gonna be successful one day." He dreams of having his own place–not just an apartment, he stresses, but a house. He longs to sit back in that house and say to himself, "Alright, I did it." He figures it’ll take him about five years to get there. "I can see the door. I can see the door of opportunity," he says. "But right now, it’s like, I’m just standing here."