Wisconsin's Unemployment Disparity Between Blacks & Whites Is Worst In The United States

Nov 12, 2019

Despite the job market doing better than it has in previous years, some people are still having a hard time finding work. That's especially true for black Wisconsinites.

In 2018, the black unemployment rate in Wisconsin was nearly three times that of whites, according to American Community Survey data.

A couple of weeks ago, the Milwaukee Urban League hosted its last job fair of 2019 at its headquarters near Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and North Avenue. Dozens of African American teens and adults came to fill out job applications and talk with employers.

Javonte Winston (second from the left) chats with a job recruiter at the job fair.
Credit Teran Powell

Javonte Winston was at the job fair. He says he's been unemployed since the beginning of this year, even though he's been searching for work.

"A lot of jobs I’ve been looking for, of course, you want to get a job with good pay. And those good paying jobs are far out where you're discriminated upon, where it’s probably a little segregated, which they probably don't want to admit to,"  Winston says.

Wisconsin's black unemployment rate in 2018 was estimated at 7.6%, compared to just 2.8 % for whites, according to the latest unemployment data.   

READ: Some Of The Worst Racial Disparities Between Blacks & Whites Exist In Midwest

Experts, like Laura Dresser, say the disparity in unemployment is the worst in the nation. Dresser is the associate director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS,) a national think tank at UW-Madison.

"Even when we are talking about the lowest unemployment rate in 20 years, and the broad economic growth, the kind of statements about economic success that you hear in this moment … that success is really not equally shared all across the nation. The success that low unemployment rate is describing the reality, basically, for the white population," she says.

READ: Black Men Aren't Pursuing Careers As Physicians: 'They Don't See Themselves As Doctors'

But how did we get here? In the late 1970s and early '80s, Dresser says the black unemployment rate in Wisconsin was lower than the national rate. But things changed as Milwaukee lost manufacturing jobs.

"I think, no story about racial disparity in this state can ignore the industrial restructuring, especially of Milwaukee. The loss of manufacturing jobs hit every community in the southeast part of the state hard and that is both white and black working-class communities," she explains.

Dresser says Wisconsin's black population was left "economically isolated," and couldn’t bounce back as easily as other groups.

"Partly because of geographic location, partly because of regional economic disparities and lack of transportation infrastructure, partly because of the segregation and racism that’s deep in the geographic boundaries around the southeast part of the state," she says.

READ: As Milwaukee's JobLines Service Ends, What's Next? 

That lack of transportation is what Laqueesha Jackson says contributed to her 18-year-old son losing his previous job. She was helping her son look for work at the Urban League job fair. Jackson says he had a job in Menomonee Falls, but he could no longer get there after his bus route was cut.

"I can imagine other people that had to lose their jobs because of transportation issues. That's a big issue. You put us in an area, and we want to better ourselves and get jobs further out where it's better pay, but then you cut the bus line," she says.

Jackson says her son has been able to find jobs in the past because of her connections. But she says she recognizes that a lot of people don't have the same opportunities.

Ernie G. Mitchell (center), the career coach with Milwaukee Urban League, speaks with a job seeker at the career fair.
Credit Teran Powell

Despite the barriers, the Milwaukee Urban League is doing its part to try to help black people find work, says Ernie G. Mitchell. He's the career coach with the organization.

"We try to equip them with the proper tools, such as helping them get their high school diploma GED, helping them with their driver's licenses — as you know, a lot of these good paying jobs are in outlying areas," Mitchell explains. "We also invite them in to do one-on-ones, that’s what I do. And we definitely work with felons."

While Mitchell says the Urban League is up to the challenge to help, he thinks the “powers that be” should do more to bring jobs back to the central city.

Do you have a question about race in Milwaukee that you'd like WUWM's Teran Powell to explore? Submit it below.

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