Written by Serie McDougal
“When are America catches a cold, Black America catches the flu”. Many people are familiar with quotes like these which reinforce the notion that socio-economic suffering is not distributed equally across race in the American context. What’s more, the suggestion is that African Americans typically absorb an excess impact of national dilemmas across social arenas including but not limited to healthcare, criminal justice, employment, etc. Diette, Goldsmith, Hamilton, & Darity (2018) conducted a study to answer the question; does experiencing unemployment damage the psychological wellbeing of Black people more than Whites.
Why is this an interesting question? Among social sciences, there is the idea that Black people may be more resilient to the suffering associated with unemployment based on the logic that they were used to higher levels of structural discrimination. From another perspective, these notions are rooted in age-old racist myths like those that emerged from the physical abuse during enslavement. For example, the notion that Black people could absorb more pain than Whites, as a way to justify the brutality inflicted on them.
Nevertheless, to answer their question, Diette, Goldsmith, Hamilton, & Darity (2018) used data from the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication. They found that Black people who experience short-term unemployment were significantly more likely to suffer from psychological distress compared to Whites who also experienced short-term unemployment. It is clear that during the Great Recession, rose as high as 15.9%. Thus Diette, Goldsmith, Hamilton, & Darity (2018) infer from their results that Black people likely absorbed a disproportionate psychological cost as a result, compared to Whites. They found little statistical difference in Black and White reactions to long-term unemployment.
The explanation for why short-term unemployment has this differential effect is centered around wealth. Job loss is associated with feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and prolonged sadness. This is because when a job is lost a person must contend with paying utilities, putting food on the table, and paying their rent (Akee, 2018). However, these things are more of a struggle when a person does not possess access to the kind of wealth that can help them pay for these things when they are unemployed. In short, wealth is a buffer against the concerns associated with short-term unemployment. Thus people with more wealth are more protected from the psychological distress associated with unemployment compared to those who have less wealth; and White Americans had 10-times the median wealth possessed by Black Americans in 2016 (Akee, 2018). What should be done with this data?
Proposed include reparations, homeownership programs, higher income levels, baby bonds, individual development accounts, policies to treat distress for the unemployed, reemployment programs, and more expansive safety nets for the unemployed (Akee, 2018; Diette, Goldsmith, Hamilton, & Darity, 2018). What the analysis of these results misses is the role of anti-Blackness intergenerationally and contemporarily. Conversations around fail to account for this spurious variable routinely which has strong implications for potential solutions. Because it was enslavement and systematic anti-Black which led to this wealth gap and help to maintain it. Institutionalized policies such as those mentioned above will likely fail without oversight bodies. Moreover, the disproportionate impact absorbed by African Americans is an incentive to continue their disproportionate suffering because the trends reduce the impact economic downturns might have on non-Blacks.
Akee, R. (2018, August 22). New evidence that losing your job is even more stressful for black Americans. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/new-evidence-that-losing-your-job-is-even-more-stressful-for-black-americans/?utm_campaign=Economic Studies&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=65503971
Diette, T. M., Goldsmith, A. H., Hamilton, D., & Darity, W. (2018). Race, Unemployment, and Mental Health in the USA: What Can We Infer About the Psychological Cost of the Great Recession Across Racial Groups?. Journal of Economics, Race, and Policy, 1-17.