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Chart: Black Americans have faced pandemic-level unemployment for a decade

Unemployment rates reveal a lot more than job loss—they show the economic effects of racism.

Chart: Black Americans have faced pandemic-level unemployment for a decade
[Screenshot: Propublica]

In March, the New York Times gave up its most valuable real estate—the right-hand column—for a bar chart that showed the staggering and unprecedented 3.3 million unemployment claims brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. That number only increased, and by April, unemployment in the United States was at a record 14.7%.

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But Black Americans have been experiencing unemployment at that level for a decade, according to a striking new ProPublica infographic—and when the pandemic struck, Black Americans were affected by unemployment even more acutely.

The line graph shows a slew of unemployment trends across different age, race, gender, education, and income combinations, over two time periods: the last six months and the last decade. If you want to drill into the data yourself, you can select up to three of your own categories (say you want to see the trendline for Black women, age 25-54). Otherwise, keep scrolling and the interactive chart guides you through the data: It starts by highlighting the national unemployment trendline in white, then breaks it down for white workers, Black workers, and Hispanic workers with yellow, mint green, and coral trendlines, respectively. Keep scrolling and the UX brings other details in the data to your attention as you go.

The chart that spans the past decade shows that in 2010, the unemployment rate for white workers at 8%; Hispanic workers at 12%; and Black workers at 15%. That means the 2010 Black unemployment rate was .3% higher than April’s unemployment rate for the entire United States—the highest rate since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics started recording data in 1948. The disparity isn’t new: “The classic fact about Black unemployment,” William Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University who studies racial inequality told ProPublica, “is that it’s been two times the white rate since we started measuring it.”

Explore the interactive graphic here. [Screenshot: Propublica]
With unemployment rates double that of white workers under more normal circumstances, Black workers weren’t on a level playing field to start with. Now the pandemic has only exacerbated that difference, in part because Black workers are less likely to have jobs that allow them to work from home, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. That plays out in this chart’s trendlines, too. The white unemployment rate went from 3% in January to 9% in June; the Black unemployment rate went from 7% to 15% during the same period.

No matter which line you look at among the dozens of possibilities, there is one consistency: an unemployment gap between white workers and workers of color. So what’s causing the disparity? According to researchers, another constant in American life is to blame: racism. The proof? Unemployment still disproportionately affects Black people even as income and education levels rise. Whether comparing white and Black households with incomes at $25,000 or individuals who are college educated with a household income of $75,000, the trend lines never overlap. The gap is still there, just smaller.

Continue to scroll through the interactive graphic and more patterns in unemployment disparity emerge in pop up windows displaying stark, double digit numbers. They show Black Americans facing crisis-level unemployment for the past decade. But what’s not answered between the x and y axis is why policymakers have never considered it a crisis in need of emergency stimulus.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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