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In NYC, Education Remains Paramount in Reducing Economic-Racial Gap, Experts Say

The second in a 3-part series that examines the huge gaps in employment levels and wages between Black and white New Yorkers doing the same job
Photo: August de Richelieu from Pexels.
This is the second in a three-part series looking at a new report on wage and employment disparities between Black and white New Yorkers. In part one, we dug into the data. In part two, we will look at some possible explanations for the disparities.

The data is clear: Black New Yorkers  hold a shockingly small share of the jobs in a range of the better-paying industries and don't get paid as much as their white counterparts for doing the same jobs.

A new Center for an Urban Future report highlighting these economic disparities adds to a growing body of statistics that cannot be ignored.

The causes and factors for these disparities may be complex. But one thing is clear: They need to be analyzed and addressed in our city's post-pandemic rebuild. Jonathan Bowles, CUF's executive director, said the reasons for the disparities are "complex and interconnected with issues of racism, poverty and other socioeconomic conditions."

And while the new report was not an in-depth analysis of these causes, it sheds light on the scope and scale of the disparities, highlighting education inequality as central factor.

Education is paramount

"About 69 percent of white workers in New York City have a bachelors or higher. For Black New Yorkers it's about 31 percent," Bowles said. "We've moved into a new economy in the last ten or 20 years where a bachelors degree has become a floor for many of the higher-reach jobs."

In this economy, tech and creative industries are responsible for much of the growth in good jobs, and there is a real premium in those fields for a bachelors degree.

The city needed to set a goal of improving educational attainment rates for Black and brown New Yorkers, as post-secondary education was a springboard to the middle class, Bowles said. A fundamental way to do that was to invest in CUNY and for employers to hire outside of Ivy League schools, he added.

On top of gaps in education, Bowles said there was no escaping that institutional racism played a role: "These inequities are so glaring and persistent. I think we need employers in a lot of different sectors to come to the table and really develop thoughtful plans to change the ratios in their industries."

Entrenched racist policies

Scott Short, CEO of Brooklyn-based community organization Riseboro Community Partnership, agreed education played a major role in wage and employment disparities in New York, adding we have one of the most segregated school systems in the country.

"That's due to a history of intentionally racist policies that our government has undertaken historically, that have disenfranchised Black and brown communities in order to bring more resources to white communities."

He said current disparities dated back to policies, including red lining, that impoverished Black and brown neighborhoods. Steps need to be taken today to undo the harm done by red lining.

"Allowing people to live where they want within the city, in high-opportunity neighborhoods, is what leads to economic mobility," he said. Unfortunately, even in New York, there was a lot of pushback from higher-opportunity, whiter neighborhoods to affordable housing developments or housing the homeless on their blocks, he added.

"I think we have to do some soul searching and reexamine our housing policy," Short said. "That's where we start to really move the needle on making education more fair and breaking down the barriers."

Buy-in across sectors

Short said educational attainment was one part of the solution to pay equity, but you also needed buy-in from employers. Affirmative action programs should be strengthened, and racial equity should be invested in after initial hiring through professional development programs.

"Getting in the door is one thing, but getting in the door at a lower wage you also want the opportunity to advance your skills and salary within the company," he said.

Riseboro provides employment and skills training as part of its community-based programming, and Short said NGOs like his need investment as they often deliver the services that help break down barriers to economic mobility and empower Black and brown folks in the community to achieve their goals.

He said employers also need to make an investment in low income New Yorkers who may not have the Ivy League educational attainment they were looking for, but, "can be just as productive and valuable employees as anyone else."

Although nationwide Black employment had been growing prior to the pandemic, with employment at 59 percent versus 61 percent for White Americans, and wages accelerating (but still trailing white households by an average of $30,000 a year), the CUF report shows the issues that existed within those figures. And the pandemic only exacerbated the inequality facing Black New Yorkers.

Systemic issues

Since 2018, New York City Commission on Human Rights has settled 16 cases of racial discrimination in employment with Black complainants, a spokesperson told the Wall St Journal.

In July, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer called on 67 S&P 100 companies to match statements on racial equity with action, by disclosing diversity reports. He has praised private sector hires of chief diversity officers and called on the city to do the same.

On seeing the impact the position could create in public office, Stringer urged New York City to embrace addressing the systemic racism, "that we know exists in all government institutions at every level." Recently, Stringer has urged the city to support minority and women-owned businesses, through funding, childcare support and tax support.

In a statement to the BK Reader, Stringer said no matter the scale of the challenge, closing wage and employment gaps between Black and white workers should be among the city's highest policy priorities and it would require a dedicated and long-term response.

"For the city's economy not only to recover from the current crisis, but to reemerge more equitable and inclusive, policymakers will need to take strong steps to help more Black New Yorkers gain footholds—and advance—in a diverse range of well-paying and accessible fields."

In part three of the series we look at what is being done to tackle the alarming disparities in wages and employment in well-paying sectors between Black and white New Yorkers and talk to city leaders.


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