More than half of black males between the ages of 16 and 19 are unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that's only counting those seeking work. Economists say legions of other young black men — nobody knows how many — have given up looking.
Sitting in an empty classroom at the YouthBuild Charter School in Washington, D.C., Andre Johnson, 18, talks about his fruitless job search.
"I apply for jobs every day," he says. "And usually I do it online, 'cause I know before when I used to go in the stores, they used to look at me actually different and weird, and they say, 'Oh we don't have no applications or nothing,' and I never believed them."
Academics believe fewer than 14 in 100 young black men actually have jobs. Washington, D.C., has the worst teen employment rate in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A Disturbing Trend
Experts point to several reasons for the disparity. Allison Lee is a job placement specialist at YouthBuild, which helps teens complete their GEDs, gain job training and land internships and employment. She says she has seen discrimination from hiring managers firsthand.
"They have told me on the phone or to my face that they are hiring," she says. "And when I send a student in by himself who's a young black male, they're told, 'No, we're not hiring.'"
Discrimination alone doesn't explain the entire problem. There are other reasons, like the fact that few African-Americans work in hiring offices. Studies show that when more blacks are in positions to hire new employees, more blacks get hired.
Also, few networks exist in the young men's communities to help them get jobs. Fewer of their parents, family and friends have jobs, so fewer connections are there to help them find work. It all sets up a disturbing trend.
Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute says the job prospects for white, adult felons are higher than those for black male teenagers without any criminal record.
In addition, older workers who have been laid-off from higher paying jobs are now taking the entry-level jobs many black teens apply for. In fact, more people 55 and older are working in this recession than were before.
Lingering Disparities, Long-Term Effects
It's not just low-income households that are hurting.
Andrew Sum of with the Center for Labor Market Studies found that upper-middle-class black teenagers are less likely to be employed than low-income white teenagers.
Among black teens in households making between $100,000 and $150,000 a year, only 28 in 100 have jobs. Of white, non-Hispanic teens in households making less than $20,000 a year, 37 out of 100 have jobs. Generally, as family income increases, the rate of teen employment for those households rises. But even this trend can't erase the lingering disparities in employment for black teenagers.
Sum says that young people need to work during their teen years:
"These people who work a lot when they're teenagers not only benefit when they're teenagers, but they also will work more and earn more when they're 25 years old," he says. "The more you work now, the more you work tomorrow."
And working as a teen leads to higher high school graduation rates, steadier and higher-paying employment down the road, and lower rates of criminal activity.
Refusing To Give Up
Anthony Bishop, 18, is still looking for work. On his lunch break at the Building for the Future Charter School in Southeast D.C., he says young black men need to "dress for the occasion" when they apply for a job.
"Some black people ... they'll just go on the job with baggy jeans, just try to apply for the job, but that ain't the right way to go." he says.
Back at YouthBuild, 19-year-old Isaiah Brown says the managers who wouldn't hire him missed out on a good worker.
"And you just missed out on a good opportunity for your business," he says.
Corey Evans, another YouthBuild student, is optimistic in telling other black youths to keep trying. "Don't let nothing hold you back," he says.
He says the best way to get a job is to not worry about the economy, or your color, even if others do.