Applying a Racial Equity Analysis: Black Employment in the District of Columbia

February 27, 2020
By Doni Crawford, Policy Analyst, DC Fiscal Policy Institute

As a District, we often talk about the state of our booming economy and widespread prosperity. But for whom? To answer this question it is necessary to use a racial equity analysis that grounds the work in history and disaggregates data by race/ethnicity. Overall unemployment levels have steadily recovered from the recession to 5.3 percent in November 2019, but these numbers mask staggering racial inequities. The recovery has been largely uneven for Black people.[i] The annual average unemployment rate among Black residents remained higher at 12.4 percent in 2018 than when the recession hit in 2007, despite nearly a decade of economic growth. And during that same time period, employment levels fully recovered for white workers resulting in a white-Black employment gap that is far higher now than in 2007.

Similarly, the District’s median household income has increased from $67,600 in 2008 to $85,200 in 2018.[ii] But again, for whom? The District’s workforce has become increasingly polarized with a growing income gap between high-earning professional workers and low-earning workers who provide essential services, and this gap falls largely along racial lines. The Black median household income in DC is $45,200 and is no higher than it was in the past decade, while the median household income for white households is more than three times higher at $142,500 and growing.

Accordingly, applying a racial equity analysis through disaggregated data allows us to see that Black residents are seven times as likely as white residents to be unemployed, despite actively looking for work, and once in the job market, Black workers are more likely to work jobs that require manual labor and pay lower wages than white workers. A deeper racial equity analysis takes it a step further and shows that these racial disparities were created by design by policymakers and private actors, and continues to harm Black workers.

An analysis of racist public policy and employment practices to address root causes for these disparities is essential. Without grounding ourselves in truth, we fail to create a sense of urgency and obligation to right these wrongs. We further risk history repeating itself when we omit how we got here. These disparities didn’t just happen overnight! Here’s an example (albeit long) from my latest report on this history:

The District’s deep history of racism, exploitation and discrimination against Black workers—including being used as stolen labor when DC was a hub for slavery, restrictions of free Black workers to the lowest-paid jobs, federal government job discrimination through much of the 20th century, and exclusion of many Black workers from New Deal labor and housing laws—directly led to present-day racial disparities in many employment-related metrics including occupations, wages, employment levels, benefits, and opportunities to grow wealth.[iii]

Due to this past, it is important to explicitly state that economic racial disparities cannot be attributed to differences in education or skills-training alone – a prevalent false narrative and justification. The employment prospects of Black DC residents, regardless of education, are affected by racial and gender bias and labor market discrimination, higher risk of job loss among Black workers, racism in education, transportation inequities and the disparate treatment of Black residents in the criminal justice system. A few examples include:

  • Black women historically have been more likely to work than white women and they continue to carry disproportionate financial burdens. They battle both racism and sexism in the labor market, leading to higher rates of unemployment and pay inequities.[iv], [v]
  • Trans persons are often denied work due to be being perceived as gender non-conforming and face high rates of assault and harassment in the workplace. This is further magnified for Black trans persons. The Trans Needs Assessment survey of 2015 revealed that trans persons in DC face extremely high rates of unemployment, with 36 percent of trans persons reporting unemployment. Black trans persons had the highest rate of unemployment at 55 percent.[vi]
  • Black applicants with identical credentials and educational attainment as white applicants receive far fewer callbacks and job offers.[vii], [viii] The unemployment rate for Black college graduates in the District is three times higher than the rate for non-Black college graduates.[ix]
  • Given racial bias in police interactions, arrests and sentencing, the overwhelming majority of DC’s returning citizens are Black men. These individuals face additional barriers to employment such as flawed criminal background checks that limit prospective employee pools and local regulations that restrict access to occupational licenses.[x]

Recognizing that there are no quick fixes to reverse the impacts of centuries of systemic racism, how would you begin to right these wrongs for Black workers?

To learn more about the state of Black workers in DC, see: Black Workers Matter: How the District’s History of Exploitation & Discrimination Continues to Harm Black Workers


[i] Doni Crawford and Kamolika Das, “Black Workers Matter: How the District’s History of Exploitation & Discrimination Continues to Harm Black Workers,” DC Fiscal Policy Institute, https://www.dcfpi.org/all/black-workers-matter/, January 28, 2020.

[ii] Tazra Mitchell, “The District’s Rising Economic Tide Isn’t Lifting Black Boats,” DC Fiscal Policy Institute, https://www.dcfpi.org/all/the-districts-rising-economic-tide-isnt-lifting-black-boats/, October 24, 2019.

[iii] Crawford and Das, pg. 1

[iv] Nina Banks, “Black Women’s Labor Market History Reveals Deep-Seated Race and Gender Discrimination,” Economic Policy Institute, https://www.epi.org/blog/black-womens-labor-market-history-reveals-deep-seated-race-and-gender-discrimination/,  February 19, 2019.

[v] Christian E. Weller, “African Americans Face Systematic Obstacles to Getting Good Jobs,” Center for American Progress, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2019/12/05/478150/african-americans-face-systematic-obstacles-getting-good-jobs/, December 5, 2019.

[vi] Edelman, E.A., Corado, R., Lumby, E.C., Gills, R.H., Elwell, J., Terry, J.A., & Emperador Dyer, J. “Access Denied: Washington, DC Trans Needs Assessment Report,” DC Trans Coalition, https://dctranscoalition.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/dctc-access-denied-final.pdf, November 2015, pg. 5, 22.

[vii] German Lopez, “Study: Anti-Black Hiring Discrimination is as Prevalent Today as it was in 1989,” Vox, https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/9/18/16307782/study-racism-jobs, September 2017.

[viii] Andy Kroll, “The Persistent Black-White Employment Gap,” Salon, https://www.salon.com/2011/07/05/unemployment_scandal/, July 2011.

[ix] Linnea Lassiter, “Still Looking for Work: Unemployment in DC Highlights Racial Inequity,” DC Fiscal Policy Institute, https://www.dcfpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Still-Looking-for-Work-Unemployment-2017_fnl.pdf, March 2017.

[x] Marina Duane, Emily Reimal, and Matthew Lynch, “Criminal Background Checks and Access to Jobs: A Case Study of Washington DC,” Urban Institute, https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/91456/2001377-criminal-background-checks-and-access-to-jobs_2.pdf, July 2017.

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