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Unemployment & Labor

Black America's unemployment legacy

In today’s labor market, a ‘good job’ allows one to meet their financial goals and access benefits for their families, such as health and life insurance. However, for Black Americans—the group with the highest unemployment rate and lowest incomes of any group in the U.S.—that essential stability conferred by such a job is wholly absent. This section of the ADOS Advocacy Foundation’s Black agenda will survey the history of public policy that led to this dire situation and propose new policies that, if implemented, will improve the economic health of Black America while helping to close the racial wealth gap


Black unemployment begins with Reconstruction and extends up to our present moment. In his 1967 speech, “The Other America”, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed how race, poverty, and economic injustice work to create what are essentially two different national experiences for American citizens. He described one America as a land filled with the “milk of prosperity” and “honey of equality,” where millions of people bask in what he calls the “sunlight of opportunity.” King was describing the white American experience at that time. He continued to describe the other America, Black America, as having an “ugliness that transforms hope into fatigue and despair.” He states, “In this other America, men walk the streets in search of jobs that do not exist.” King was calling attention to the duality between white and Negro American communities. Unfortunately, that duality persists, and today’s conditions mirror the grim picture of employment and opportunity in King’s 1967 speech.1

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in June of 1950, 10.5% of Black Americans and 3.8% of whites were unemployed among the 25-34-year-old demographic.2 And, despite the various anti-discrimination policies that were implemented since the 1950s, in 2013 the Pew Research Center found that the Black unemployment rate has consistently been twice that of whites since the BLS started recording unemployment data in the 1950s.3 In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, 83.7% of Black workers in California filed for unemployment benefits. White Californians filed for unemployment at a rate of 38.5% during that same time.4 Additionally, it is important to note that only people who are jobless, looking for a job, and are available for work are included in the BLS unemployment calculations. Discouraged workers, institutionalized persons (students, military, or incarcerated), or persons no longer looking for work are not included in unemployment data. So, unemployment numbers for Black Americans are often more pronounced than the numbers suggest. In fact, in May of 2021, only 55.4% of Black American workers were employed, meaning that 44.6% of Black workers were unemployed or uncounted in the labor force.5 This illustrates that Black Americans have always faced disproportionately worse economic conditions than whites, conditions so desperate that there appears to be two Americas, both then and now.

While many federal programs have lifted Americans out of economic despair, those programs have often neglected the severity of the Black American economic situation or excluded Black people altogether. For instance, in the 1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal work relief program, capped Black American enrollment at 10 percent. This quota reflected the racial profile of the national population but failed to take into consideration the extreme lopsidedness in unemployment between Blacks and whites.6 CCC camps in some Southern states outright refused Black Americans, arguing that they were needed to “tend fields”.6 Additionally, the Social Security Act of 1935 provided a safety net for workers, assuring income in retirement. However, the Act excluded two professions, agricultural and domestic workers, of which 65% were descendants of American chattel slavery.7 Upon cursory examination, it becomes clear that a persistent feature of the New Deal programs was the intentional exclusion of Black Americans from provisions that stabilized white American communities. And as a result, the relegation of Black people to the lowest ranks of American society continued.


The story of Black labor in America begins with slavery itself and continues with the struggle for labor rights, which is ongoing today. Researchers have estimated that $20.3 trillion in wages were stolen from slaves.8 That number was nearly the total US GDP in 2019. The practice of chattel slavery was so lucrative that, even after the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude, Southern states created Black Codes that imprisoned Blacks for petty crimes and created a system in which they leased prisoners to railroad, mining, and agricultural firms.9 This re-enslavement period was coined by author Douglas Blackmon as “Slavery by Another Name,” and today, the practice of exploiting Black prisoners continues from coast to coast. For example, in California, prisoners often help the state with the hazardous duty of fighting wildfires for approximately $2 per day.10 And in New York, prisoners produced hand sanitizer amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Their labor resulted in 100,000 gallons of sanitizer per week and prevented prices from soaring in the region; prisoners in NY typically earn $0.10 to $0.33 an hour.11

Outside of the institution of slavery and all of its evolutions, Black workers and civil rights leaders battled white supremacy for improved wages and working conditions by leveraging their collective power. The American imagination peddles the idea of labor rights advancement as an interracial, egalitarian class struggle. But in reality, white America’s pursuit of working-class uplift leveraged white supremacy and established racist hierarchies, which are still present in today’s labor force. As early as Reconstruction, newly freed slaves and working-class whites engaged in collective bargaining for improved labor standards with varying degrees of success. However, in many cases, even when touting the communist ideals of brotherhood, white union workers abandoned interracial cooperation to pursue their own interests.12

In 1909, the Firemen’s Brotherhood, a white workers union, used violence and labor strikes as tactics to get the Georgia railroad to replace Negro firemen with whites. During the same period, a trainmen and conductors union negotiated a seniority agreement with most of the southeastern railroads, effectively barring Blacks from highly skilled and supervisory level positions.13 Some unions so relied on discrimination that, during World War II, when Federal employment commissions ordered unions to cease discriminatory practices, they refused and instead threatened a wartime strike, which is a crime under certain conditions.13 But, white trade unions would rather engage in treason than fully embrace Black workers and reject white supremacy.13 As such, the number of Black workers diminished in highly skilled fields. Consequently, Black workers wp-signup.phped Black unions where available, even as they continued to fight labor discrimination in white spaces.13 In 1925, A. Philip Randolph founded the first predominantly Black labor union chartered by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). At the time, half of the unions affiliated with AFL outright denied Black workers from wp-signup.phping.14 Over time, The BSCP became a symbol of Black progress, and the founder, A. Phillip Randolph, was appointed Vice President of the AFL. Randolph used his influence to route racist and discriminatory practices out of affiliated labor unions.15 

Black workers in the early 20th century were right to unionize. A 2016 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) reported that unions increase the wages of Black workers by 16.4% and Blacks are 17.4% more likely to have access to health and retirement benefits.16 Despite the benefits of unionization, anti-union propaganda and misinformation have created a burdensome environment for establishing unions.16 In the spring of 2021, organizers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, began attempts to unionize and fight for better working conditions. Bessemer lies just outside Birmingham and is 72% Black. Today’s organizers are combating similar propaganda and intimidation tactics first employed to fight collective bargaining of Black Alabamians more than a century ago.17 The issue of labor and civil rights is so entwined that Dr. King was assassinated while fighting for the advancement of Black labor rights. In his final days, King supported striking sanitation workers in Memphis and gave his famous last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” After King’s death and more pressure, sanitation workers successfully formed a union and had their demands met by the city, although not without some resistance.18

Modern workforce and employment studies present a picture more akin to the caste system established by white unions than the land filled with the “honey of equality” that King spoke of in his 1967 speech. Today, Black workers are underrepresented in high-wage growth industries like information technology, business services, and financial services. Nearly half of the Black private-sector workers, 45%, are employed in three sectors, each with a heavy frontline presence—healthcare, retail, and food service.19 These three industries also have the highest percentage of workers bringing in less than $30,000. With Black workers concentrated in those industries, it is no surprise that 43% of all Black private-sector workers earn less than $30,000 per year. For comparison, only 29% of all private-sector workers earn less than $30,000 per year.19 In the public sector, the footing for Black workers is more solid. For at least a century, the federal government has hired Black Americans at higher rates than the private sector.20 Today, nearly 1 in 5 Black workers are employed in the public sector.20 These jobs provide income stability and economic security in retirement. However, even for those with government jobs, the future has a grim backdrop when you consider that Black workers are concentrated in occupations with the highest risk of being disrupted by automation. Currently, without the intervention of automation, it will take about 95 years for Black employees to reach employment parity across all industry sectors.19

To combat the haunting legacy of unemployment and workplace immobility, the Biden-Harris administration must implement transformative Black employment programs:

  • While employing The Build Back Better bill, institute a new $10 billion CCC program utilizing the ADOS Matrix to assign workers to initiatives under the plan. In addition, implementing unemployment “strike teams” that recruit Black Americans into these programs would ensure race-neutral policy does not result in exclusion akin to the original New Deal programs.
  • Establish a permanent federal jobs preference for Black Americans that guarantees a living wage based on location and which is tied to inflation. Applicants should be targeted using the ADOS Matrix to work in permanent-career positions.
  • 15% of government contracts must go to Black-owned businesses. Those businesses must hire Black Americans in proportion to the local Black population and guarantee a living wage based on location and which is tied to inflation.
  • To end the legacy of slave labor in U.S. prisons, a living wage based on the location of the conviction must be imposed on prison labor programs.


  • Utilizing the ADOS Matrix, institute $20 billion in workplace development and STEM apprenticeship programs to increase wages and leadership opportunities for ADOS workers. The program’s goal should be to reach horizontal and vertical parity for ADOS workers across industries and occupations. In addition, the program should adopt a cooperative education format, so candidates receive simultaneous training and education to fast-track development and hiring.

  • Issue an executive order recognizing the need for the specific economic uplift of Black Americans, like those issued for Hispanics and AAPIs. This order must create a permanent White House Initiative on Black Americans’ Economic Uplift and Full Economic Inclusion. The White House executive order on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Black Americans does not meet the ADOS Advocacy Foundation’s standard in terms of specificity or magnitude.


  1. Taylor, Ryan. “The Other America Speech Transcript – Martin Luther King Jr.” Rev, April 14. 1967,

  2. Bedell, Mary. “Employment and Income of Negro Workers – 1940-52.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 1953.

  3. DeSilver, Drew. “Black Unemployment Rate Is Consistently Twice That of Whites.” Pew Research Center, August 21, 2013.

  4. Lightman, David. “Here’s How Hard the Coronavirus Pandemic Hit Black Workers in California.” The Sacramento Bee, November 19, 2020.

  5. “Table A-2. Employment Status of the Civilian Population by Race, Sex, and Age.” Accessed June 30, 2021.
  6. McNeil, Ashley, and Hannah Traverse. “Moving Forward Initiative: The African American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps.” The Corps Network, August 17, 2017,

  7. DeWitt, Larry. “The Decision to Exclude Agricultural and Domestic Workers from the 1935 Social Security Act.” Social Security Administration Research, Statistics, and Policy Analysis, Social Security Office of Retirement and Disability Policy, November 4, 2010,,The%20Decision%20to%20Exclude%20Agricultural%20and%20Domestic,the%201935%20Social%20Security%20Act&text=The%20Social%20Security%20Act%20of,of%20whom%20were%20African%20Americans.

  8. Saraiva, Catarina. Four Numbers That Show the Cost of Slavery on Black Wealth Today. Bloomberg, March 18. 2021,
  9. “Convict Leasing.” Equal Justice Initiative, November 1, 2013,

  10. Lewis, Amanda Chicago. “The Prisoners Fighting California’s Wildfires.” BuzzFeed. Accessed July 6, 2021.

  11. Bates, Josiah. “New York Is Using Prison Labor to Make Hand Sanitizer.” Time, March 9. 2020,


  12. Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. University of North Carolina Press., 2015.
  13. Hill, Herbert. “Labor Unions and the Negro: The Record of Discrimination.” Commentary Magazine, December 1, 1959,

  14. Glass, Andrew. “Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Is Founded, May 8, 1926.” POLITICO, Accessed February 8, 2022.

  15. Editor. A. Philip Randolph | Biography, Organizations, & March on Washington | Britannica.  Accessed February 8, 2022.

  16. Bucknor, Cherrie. Black Workers, Unions, and Inequality. CENTER FOR ECONOMIC AND POLICY RESEARCH (CEPR), Aug. 2016,

  17. Morrison, Sara. “The Amazon Union Drive Isn’t over yet.” Vox, August 3, 2021,

  18. University, © Stanford, et al. “Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, June 2, 2017,

  19. Hancock, Bryan. Black Workers in the U.S. Private Sector | McKinsey. Accessed February 8, 2022.
  20. Madowitz, Michael. “Public Work Provides Economic Security for Black Families and Communities.” Center for American Progress, Accessed February 8, 2022.

Learn more about the Black Agenda


Despite being the agricultural experts at the end of Slavery, Black farmers have been historically excluded from agricultural programs.

Black Business

Black America requires investment in business, economic uplift, and employment. Learn more.


For decades, Cannabis was used to incarcerate a disproportionate number of Black Americans.
Repair starts here.

Climate Change

The change in regional climate patterns stems from public policies historically aimed at protecting white property values at the expense of the Black community. Learn more.

Criminal Justice

Black America has faced unequal outcomes from the justice system for centuries. We want to change current outcomes to more equitable ones.


Educational inequalities for Black America must be addressed systematically.

Environmental Racism

Polluted environments harm our communities in America. Learn about our solutions to address this issue.

Health & Nutrition

Health is a part of wealth. Our communities have been deprived of access to adequate healthcare for centuries. This inequality must be addressed.


Redlining and subprime lending practices exacerbated the lineage wealth gap. This inequality must be addressed.


Widespread Immigration has been used to suppress Black mobility for decades. We want to provide a more ethical pathway to citizenship.


The government provides grants for road and public transit projects, utilities, and a host of other capital expenditures. Black America must have access.

Without these measures being instituted, ADOS are locked out of the country our ancestors built during chattel slavery. Without reforms through transformative government, we will be left to continue living a third world life in a first world country.

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