Sunday, April 11, 2010

It is Easy to Casually Fire Black People and Even Easier Not to Hire Them

This is the truth here in post-racial America.

Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report recently delivered a devastating analysis of an urgent topic that pitiably few reporters at big news organizations have bothered to unpack. (Michael Luo at The New York Times is a rare and thankfully well-placed exception.)

In his April 7 piece, Ford looks at the skyrocketing unemployment stats among African-Americans, and lays out a likely trajectory of increasing unemployment. Along the way, he also deftly uncovers some of the soft, difficult to quantify aspects underneath the high black unemployment rate, namely, the probability of whites who are reluctant to hire blacks during this massive contraction of the American workplace. He stops short of saying white gatekeepers and hiring managers are racist....but what else explains it?

At the same time, I don't agree with Ford's rather inelegant Karate chop near the end of the piece -- he accuses President Obama of not caring to address the escalating jobless crisis for blacks.I do worry that President Obama, fresh off the long, grueling battle to pass health care reform, may be a bit reluctant to pivot hard and stride directly into another wrenching economics-related minefield...especially one marked with big ruts of cultural crap. Sure, POTUS could roll out and say, "Black folks are being hit hardest by the economic downturn, so I am going to focus on creating jobs in their communities first."

But not only would such a statement from the President send the Tea Partiers to marching up Pennsylvania Avenue with lit pitchforks and swinging truncheons, it would also push more than a few Democratic elected officials right out of their seats. No, I suspect there is a sub rosa plan taking shape to address the unacceptably high unemployment numbers among blacks....but no one should hold their breath for any Announcement about it any time soon. I do not think that means the President does not care,I think it means he is as pragmatic as he is determined to honor his campaign promises and to serve his own personal values.

Still, I wholeheartedly agree with Ford's call to arms: "We need a movement."

This topic is particularly urgent for me: During the past month, I have had several conversations with black colleagues and friends who are being devastated by the on-going "recession;" they are out of work and stunned by how hard it is to find a new job that is comparable to the job they left. Yes, as the saying has it, White America may have a bad cold (recession) but for us, it is an insidious, lethal case of pneumonia (Depression).

My out-of-work colleagues are doing their best to stay optimistic but it is a tough row to hoe: they are middle-aged, and have worked more than twenty years in their fields; one colleague -- well, you might call him My Former Husband -- is currently seeking work,after being employed continuously for almost 25 years in print media. As much as I am tempted to indulge in a bit of Schadenfreude as he experiences the same shock that I encountered three years ago when I was unexpectedly thrust into the hellishness of seeking work in DC's morphing, shrinking media landscape, I am not going least not whole hog, anyway. It is a scary time for black professionals who have worked hard to become experts at their line of work, only to suddenly face the prospect that all that time in service and knowledge-accumulation is no longer Good Enough. Well, that is some kind of cruel fate. (As it is for anyone in that position, no matter their gender or skin color; I'm simply suggesting that black Americans only began occupying white-collar professions in significant numbers relatively recently, so the losses are more acutely felt.)

For each of my colleagues currently out work in greater DC, the hardest part of the seemingly-endless job searching is this: Once they've cleared all the hurdles to get an interview, including writing tests, phone interviews, questionnaires, should they actually land an interview, they invariably face the amorphous "comfort zone" test. This is a make or break moment, calm on the surface, yet fraught with tension beneath the stiff smiles.

Until recently, I wore those shoes, and I know what it feels like to walk out of the interview knowing that my work experience, my sensibility, my skills at problem-solving, critical thinking, and all that good stuff will not, necessarily, trump any perception that White hiring manager may hold (however incorrectly) of my ability to "fit into the workplace culture." But this "fit in" canard is a big reason why many qualified blacks don't get hired today, especially here in D.C.'s hot-house, white collar workplaces.

So, time after time, qualified black candidates walk away from that interview, only to later receive an email or brief phone message (why are these gatekeepers so cowardly?) indicating that the hiring manager didn't feel they would make "a good fit," or that the hiring manager has decided to "go in another direction." Vague reasons.....but just specific enough to make you hang your head.

It can be soul-crushing. Like Ford at Black Agenda Report observes, the ease with which blacks -- qualified blacks -- are passed over or fired from much-needed jobs is tragic, and maddening.

Until President Obama and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and their respective Jobs Creation czars come up with an effective way to neutralize (if not eliminate) that aspect of the changing economic landscape, I'm afraid the gains that blacks have made during the past three decades will be diminished greatly, perhaps even irrevocably.


David Mills: Now that was a Giant Negro for you.

Today is the home-going for David Mills, the former Washington Post writer who went on to deliver some of the best television scripts of the past decade. I could not make the service, in College Park, Maryland, but I was there in spirit, and will make a donation to David's family's preferred charity. Last night, I watched the premiere of "Treme" on HBO, the series David was working on when he passed away last month. Yep, great writing, as usual. I will eagerly watch the entire series.... even though I dread the inevitable time ahead, when we will come to deeply miss his singular voice and uncanny insight......