by Janell Ross, Huffington Post
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In the decade leading up to the Great Recession, Wanda Nolan grew accustomed to steady progress.
From an entry-level job as a fill-in bank teller, she forged a career as a commercial banking assistant, earning enough to become a homeowner. She finished college and then got an MBA. Even after the recession unfolded in late 2007, her degrees and her familiarity with the business world lent her a sense of immunity to the forces ravaging much of the American economy. Nolan was an exemplar of the African American middle class and the increasingly professional ranks of the so-called New South.
But in September 2008, everything changed.
A bank human resources officer called her into a private conference room. “All I heard was, ‘Your position has been eliminated,’” says Nolan, 37, who, despite being one of the more than 13 million officially unemployed Americans, still spends most days in her self-styled banker’s uniform of pearls and pants and practical flats. “My mind started racing.”
More than two years later, Nolan is still looking for a job and feeling increasingly anxious about a future that once felt assured. Her life has devolved from a model of middle class African American upward mobility into an example of a disturbing trend: She is among the 15.5 percent of African Americans out of work and still looking for a job.
For economists, that number may sound awful, but it’s not surprising. The nation’s overall unemployment rate sits at 8.8 percent and the rate among white Americans is at 7.9 percent. For a variety of reasons -- ranging from levels of education and continuing discrimination to the relatively young age of black workers -- black unemployment tends to run twice the rate for whites. Yet since the Great Recession, joblessness has remained so critically elevated among African Americans that it is challenging longstanding ideas about what it takes to find work in the modern-day economy.
Millions of people like Nolan, who have precisely followed the oft-dictated recipe for economic success -- work hard, get an education, seek advancement -- are slipping backward. Even as they apply for jobs and accept the prospect of a future with less job security and lower pay, they remain stalled in unemployment.
Trading down has become a painful truth for much of working America, but this truth becomes particularly stark when seen through the prism of race. Only 12 percent of all Americans are black, but working-age black Americans comprise nearly 21 percent of the nation’s unemployed, according to federal data. The growing contrast between prospects for white and black job-seekers challenges a cherished American notion: the availability of opportunity and upward mobility for all.