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Blacks lose ground in job slump

California has a 10.5% unemployment rate -- but 12.5% for African Americans. Nationally the gap is even wider.

March 21, 2009|Ronald D. White and Marc Lifsher

LOS ANGELES AND SACRAMENTO — California's unemployment rate rose for the 11th straight month in February, hitting 10.5% as a recession-racked economy shed a higher-than-expected 116,000 jobs, the state reported Friday.

The rate is up from 10.1% in January and is the highest since April 1983. All but one of 11 industries surveyed lost jobs, with construction the hardest hit. California employers have cut nearly 606,000 workers from their payrolls since February 2008, driving the state jobless rate well above the national rate of 8.1%.

The state is far from hitting bottom, analysts said. Slowing growth in Asia bodes ill for California's trade-dependent economy. And a painful wave of cuts is just beginning in the government sector, normally a reliable source of employment, as the state prepares to lay off thousands of teachers and other public servants.

The losses are slamming California's minority workers. Black unemployment -- which tops that of other racial groups in the best of times -- has reached levels not seen in decades. The average annual unemployment rate among blacks in California was 12.5% in February, compared with 7.8% for whites and 10.4% for Latinos, whose jobless rate has grown faster than that of other groups because of a heavy dependence on construction jobs. These ethnic group data are compiled as moving averages of unemployment rates from the previous 12 months.

Nationally, the picture for blacks is even worse. The overall unemployment rate for blacks in February climbed to 13.4%, while the rate for black men reached 16.3%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Last hired, first fired" is an old adage in the African American community. Factory hands and the unskilled have long been whipsawed by the economy's downturns. Now layoffs are beginning to reach a once fast-growing cohort of black professionals, managers and government workers, including many who overcame discrimination and limited economic and educational opportunities to win quality jobs.

Jocelyn Brayton is a 40-year-old single mother with a teenage son, whose self-confidence and determination spurred her to get off welfare and work her way up through the ranks of a couple of property management firms. She was running a four-story office building in Orange when she was laid off this month.

"This is the first time since my son was a baby that I don't have a job," said the Santa Ana resident. Brayton has cut back on her telephone service and canceled her satellite television service. She told her 16-year-old son, Zaine, to start looking for work to help with household expenses.

While the recession has touched virtually every industry, it has battered traditional strongholds of black employment and is threatening such secure bastions as public education and government services.

Nationally, the troubled auto industry, which has been particularly welcoming to African Americans, has slashed tens of thousands of high-paying, unionized positions. Retail, services and manufacturing, which disproportionately hire blacks, have slumped.

In Southern California, the downturn has hurt African American men, who are heavily represented in many blue-collar industries. The effects of slowing trade with China are rippling through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, long a steady source of work for black longshoremen, truckers and warehouse workers. Since February 2008, more jobs have been lost in California's trade, transportation and utilities sector -- nearly 160,000 -- than in any other industry segment.

The growing layoffs among higher-paid African Americans and steep foreclosure rates in their neighborhoods are dealing a crippling blow to the nation's black middle class, community leaders say.

"I have not seen anything like this. It's just different," said the Rev. Norman Johnson, pastor of the First New Christian Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles. The church's food bank serves about 700 families a month, up from 400 before the recession started.

"A lot of middle-class African Americans built their wealth through their homes," he said. "With the declines in real estate we have seen, they are really struggling."

Catrisa Booker, a 12-year veteran of the Los Angeles public school system, fears she's about to be locked in just that struggle. Until this month, Booker thought she had it made, earning a six-figure salary as a reading and writing specialist. On the side, she was close to finishing work on a doctorate in educational administration at Pepperdine University.

Then she got the news that her position was being eliminated because of recession-related budget cuts. If she's lucky enough to land a teaching job back in the classroom -- and that's far from certain -- she would have to take a 40% pay cut.

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