Gaining equality is not a one-step process, a statement made apparent by looking at numbers reflecting the current workforce in America.
It’s no secret that unemployment rates and salary levels are different for African-Americans in comparison to other races. The statistics show unemployment and underemployment is more of a reality for African-Americans than for other groups. African-Americans are also more likely to receive lower wages than their white or Asian counterparts.
The economic advantage, Brenau University President Ed Schrader argues, comes through education.
“No matter what anybody says, there is no investment you can look at in any sphere of industry where the return is as guaranteed as it is in making sure someone finishes school,” he said. “Because they then become taxpaying (members) of society rather than people who are being sustained by society.”
The numbers back him up. According to information available on whitehouse.gov, median weekly earnings in 2012 increased depending on level of education.
For all workers, the average weekly wage is set at $815. For those with only a high school diploma, that number sits at $652. In July 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released information that full-time workers age 25 and over without a high school diploma have median weekly earnings of $477.
The unemployment rate for people with a high school diploma was 8.3 percent, while for those with a bachelor’s it was 4.5 percent, with an average weekly earning of $1,066.
“There is a higher level of unemployment in African-Americans than there is in Caucasians in the United States,” Schrader said. “But if you take race out of it, and you look at levels of education, again the national unemployment for folks without a high school degree is in the teens. Regardless of race.”
“That doesn’t mean you got the job you wanted,” he added. “That doesn’t mean you get the job you even trained for. But it is two-thirds lower unemployment (for people with bachelor’s degrees) than those folks who didn’t graduate from high school.”
Elfreda Lakey is the assistant superintendent for human resources and operations with the Gainesville City school system.
“I am an educator,” she said. “I do have to look at the statistics. And people who are in those statistics, they’re going to have that kind of attitude because they, in my opinion, have probably experienced certain things that I may or may not have experienced.
“I’ll be honest with you, I consider myself successful but I also wonder what it would have been like if I had been Caucasian,” Lakey continued. “And when you look at all these statistics ... there is a higher number of African-American students, the dropout rate is tremendous, and it’s growing.”
Lakey sees disciplinary cases as she deals with tribunals, the process some students go through for procedures such as suspensions.
“I have to admit to you more students, more Hispanics and blacks, are referred more than ... the white students,” she said. “I have to admit that. But I don’t know why, I don’t have an answer for that.”
But for Mark Page, education hasn’t been the answer yet, in spite of going back to school to follow a dream.
Page has been unemployed since 2004, making ends meet by working part-time as a driver of limousines and buses.
He had gone back to school and graduated from Gainesville State College in 2006 with a chemistry degree. He had hoped to go into the medical field.
“You have these little, I guess, dreams all your life of being certain things,” Page said. “Well, I wanted to be a nurse. Chemistry and science never was difficult for me. Organic chemistry kicked my butt.”
Page is 62. He said retirement is not an option, between a mortgage and Social Security barely paying the bills.
“It leaves you short every month, $300 or $400,” he said. “So you kind of have to skimp here and skimp there just to make everything cover each other.”
Page was at the Department of Labor’s Career Center to find more stable employment. It wasn’t that busy on a Wednesday morning with white, black, Hispanic, male and female, young and old, all represented.
Along with Page, Sharrie Collier was searching for work that day.
Collier is employed, but wants a part-time job to earn a little bit more money. She has two school-aged children.
“It’s just that everything has red tape,” she said. “You have to have more education in order to get to the next level, but when you have the education, they still want to pay you the same amount. So, it’s kind of conflicting.”
Collier has extended her education by earning a certificate as a dental hygienist. She’s been unable to find work in that field so far.
Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared he had a dream, today’s numbers indicate the dream is still not a reality for African-Americans, at least as far as the employment rates indicate.
Economic inequality is still prevalent for the black community, as African-Americans have the highest rates of unemployment among all races.
In the United States, the not-seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate for July 2013 in the African-American community was 13.4 percent, compared to a 6.8 percent unemployment rate for the white population. The Asian unemployment rate was the lowest, at 5.7 percent.
The seasonally-adjusted Georgia unemployment rate was 8.8 percent for July 2013, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.
The not-seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate in the Georgia Mountains Region, of which Hall County is a part, was at 7.9 percent in July 2013. Gainesville was listed at 7.5 percent.
Preliminary July 2013 numbers for the city of Gainesville showed a labor force of 15,729, with an unemployment rate for the city of 9.1 percent.
Gainesville’s population is just under 34,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 census.
In the census, around 9,600 respondents identified as African-American within Gainesville. There were 13,279 African-American respondents for all of Hall County, out of a total population of 179,684.
Brenau University’s Schrader sees disparities in education and economics not necessarily influenced by race as much as by location.
“Rural education in much of the South is still not where it should be for black or white,” Schrader said. He explained that it’s natural for people to group together and live in social groups where they “feel comfortable and at home. So you will find sections of counties where there is a dominance of white country living and black country living.”
He said there is a bit of “self-segregation” in that fashion.
“I don’t think today a lot of those rural schools are influenced so much by the socioeconomics of a particular race, as they are underfunded, rural education in general,” Schrader said.
Lakey said there are many things that play into economic disparities, including race.
“It does look like race, poverty play a big role in where our people are,” Lakey said. “That’s the way it appears. And the statistics support that.”
In information released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for July 2013, the median weekly earnings for male and female black workers was $634, under the $799 median for whites. Hispanic workers made a median of $572, while Asians earned the highest at $973 weekly.
Women of all races did not earn as much as men.
Page said racism still exists in the workforce, but in a different way.
“We had a period where it got a lot better, but it got a lot better for all the wrong reasons,” Page said. “It got a lot better just to meet quotas. People were given jobs that they weren’t qualified for, and they grandfathered in.”
“Rather than giving me a position because I’m black, give me a position because I scored well on a test,” he continued. “Give me a position because I can do it well with my hands, or that I have the knowledge. Don’t give me a job just because I have color.”
That’s not the way it is anymore, at least not as far as Michael Harris sees it.
Harris just moved to Hall County on Aug. 18. He accepted a job at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in sterile processing, which he has been doing for around 14 years.
Harris, 41, is another person who had returned to school to change his career track. He graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree, and in May of this year with a master’s degree in theological studies.
He moved to Hall County to find new areas of ministry in the Atlanta area, and begins his job at the hospital today.
“I think the times have changed somewhat,” Harris said when asked about how race influences employment. “We still have our challenges. We have a long way to go.
I think education, experience and your character really speaks for who you are,” he added. “And when you’re a hard worker, when you are dedicated, when you are consistent, those qualities find you everywhere you go.”
“I just don’t use (race) as an excuse for me,” she said. “Others may, but I don’t.”