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  1. 1. King’s birth name was Michael, not Martin. The civil rights leader was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929. In 1934, however, his father, a pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, traveled to Germany and became inspired by the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther. As a result, King Sr. changed his own name as well as that of his 5-year-old son. 2. King entered college at the age of 15. King was such a gifted student that he skipped grades nine and 12 before enrolling in 1944 at Morehouse College, the alma mater of his father and maternal grandfather. Although he was the son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist ministers, King did not intend to follow the family vocation until Morehouse president Benjamin E. Mays, a noted theologian, convinced him otherwise. King was ordained before graduating college with a degree in sociology. 3. King received his doctorate in systematic theology. After earning a divinity degree from Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary, King attended graduate school at Boston University, where he received his Ph.D. degree in 1955. The title of his dissertation was “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” 4. King’s 'I Have a Dream' speech was not his first at the Lincoln Memorial.Six years before his iconic oration at the March on Washington, King was among the civil rights leaders who spoke in the shadow of the Great Emancipator during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom on May 17, 1957. Before a crowd estimated at between 15,000 and 30,000, King delivered his first national address on the topic of voting rights. His speech, in which he urged America to “give us the ballot,” drew strong reviews and positioned him at the forefront of the civil rights leadership. 5. King was imprisoned nearly 30 times. According to the King Center, the civil rights leader went to jail 29 times. He was arrested for acts of civil disobedience and on trumped-up charges, such as when he was jailed in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone. 6. King narrowly escaped an assassination attempt a decade before his death. On September 20, 1958, King was in Harlem signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” in Blumstein’s department store when he was approached by Izola Ware Curry. The woman asked if he was Martin Luther King Jr. After he said yes, Curry said, “I’ve been looking for you for five years,” and she plunged a seven-inch letter opener into his chest. The tip of the blade came to rest alongside his aorta, and King underwent hours of delicate emergency surgery. Surgeons later told King that just one sneeze could have punctured the aorta and killed him. From his hospital bed where he convalesced for weeks, King issued a statement affirming his nonviolent principles and saying he felt no ill will toward his mentally ill attacker. 7. King’s last public speech foretold his death. King had come to Memphis in April 1968 to support the strike of the city’s black garbage workers, and in a speech on the night before his assassination, he told an audience at Mason Temple Church: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” 8. Members of King’s family did not believe James Earl Ray acted alone. Ray, a career criminal, pled guilty to King’s assassination but later recanted. King’s son Dexter met publicly with Ray in 1997 and argued for the case to be reopened. King’s widow, Coretta, believed the Mafia and local, state and federal government agencies were deeply involved in the murder. She praised the result of a 1999 civil trial in which a Memphis jury decided the assassination was the result of a conspiracy and that Ray was set up to take the blame. A U.S. Department of Justice investigation released in 2000 reported no evidence of a conspiracy. 9. King’s mother was also slain by a bullet. On June 30, 1974, as 69-year-old Alberta Williams King played the organ at a Sunday service inside Ebenezer Baptist Church, Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr. rose from the front pew, drew two pistols and began to fire shots. One of the bullets struck and killed King, who died steps from where her son had preached nonviolence. The deranged gunman said that Christians were his enemy and that although he had received divine instructions to kill King’s father, who was in the congregation, he killed King’s mother instead because she was closer. The shooting also left a church deacon dead. Chenault received a death penalty sentence that was later changed to life imprisonment, in part due to the King family’s opposition to capital punishment. 10. George Washington is the only other American to have had his birthday observed as a national holiday. In 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that created a federal holiday to honor King. The holiday, first commemorated in 1986, is celebrated on the third Monday in January, close to the civil rights leader’s January 15 birthday history.com
  2. By 1968, the years of demonstrations and confrontations were beginning to wear on King. He had grown tired of marches, going to jail, and living under the constant threat of death. He was becoming discouraged at the slow progress of civil rights in America and the increasing criticism from other African American leaders. Plans were in the works for another march on Washington to revive his movement and bring attention to a widening range of issues. In the spring of 1968, a labor strike by Memphis sanitation workers drew King to one last crusade. On April 3, he gave his final and what proved to be an eerily prophetic speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he told supporters at the Mason Temple in Memphis, "I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land." The next day, while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by a sniper's bullet. The shooter, a malcontent drifter and former convict named James Earl Ray, was eventually apprehended after a two-month, international manhunt. The assassination sparked riots and demonstrations in more than 100 cities across the country. In 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in prison on April 23, 1998. biography.com
  3. This resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities. This also led to King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King's struggle continued throughout the 1960s. Often, it seemed as though the pattern of progress was two steps forward and one step back. On March 7, 1965, a civil rights march, planned from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital, turned violent as police with nightsticks and tear gas met the demonstrators as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. King was not in the march, however, the attack was televised showing horrifying images of marchers being bloodied and severely injured. Seventeen demonstrators were hospitalized in a day that would be called "Bloody Sunday." A second march was canceled due to a restraining order to prevent the march from taking place. A third march was planned and this time King made sure he was part of it. Not wanting to alienate southern judges by violating the restraining order, a different approach was taken. On March 9, 1965, a procession of 2,500 marchers, both black and white, set out once again to cross the Pettus Bridge and confronted barricades and state troopers. Instead of forcing a confrontation, King led his followers to kneel in prayer and they then turned back. Alabama governor George Wallace continued to try to prevent another march until President Lyndon B. Johnson pledged his support and ordered U.S. Army troops and the Alabama National Guard to protect the protestors. On March 21, approximately 2,000 people began a march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capitol. On March 25, the number of marchers, which had grown to an estimated 25,000, gathered in front of the state capitol where King delivered a televised speech. Five months after the historic peaceful protest, President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. From late 1965 through 1967, King expanded his civil rights efforts into other larger American cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles. But he met with increasing criticism and public challenges from young black power leaders. King's patient, non-violent approach and appeal to white middle-class citizens alienated many black militants who considered his methods too weak, too late and ineffective. To address this criticism, King began making a link between discrimination and poverty, and he began to speak out against the Vietnam War. He felt that America's involvement in Vietnam was politically untenable and the government's conduct in the war discriminatory to the poor. He sought to broaden his base by forming a multi-racial coalition to address the economic and unemployment problems of all disadvantaged people. biography.com
  4. By the end of the Birmingham campaign, King and his supporters were making plans for a massive demonstration on the nation's capital composed of multiple organizations, all asking for peaceful change. On August 28, 1963, the historic March on Washington drew more than 200,000 people in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. It was here that King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, emphasizing his belief that someday all men could be brothers The rising tide of civil rights agitation produced a strong effect on public opinion. Many people in cities not experiencing racial tension began to question the nation's Jim Crow laws and the near-century of second-class treatment of African American citizens. biography.com
  5. In the spring of 1963, King organized a demonstration in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. With entire families in attendance, city police turned dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators. King was jailed along with large numbers of his supporters, but the event drew nationwide attention. However, King was personally criticized by black and white clergy alike for taking risks and endangering the children who attended the demonstration. In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, King eloquently spelled out his theory of non-violence: "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue." biography.com
  6. In February 1960, a group of African American students in North Carolina began what became known as the Greensboro sit-in movement. The students would sit at racially segregated lunch counters in the city's stores. When asked to leave or sit in the colored section, they just remained seated, subjecting themselves to verbal and sometimes physical abuse. The movement quickly gained traction in several other cities. In April 1960, the SCLC held a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina with local sit-in leaders. King encouraged students to continue to use nonviolent methods during their protests. Out of this meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed and for a time, worked closely with the SCLC. By August of 1960, the sit-ins had been successful in ending segregation at lunch counters in 27 southern cities. By 1960, King was gaining national exposure. He returned to Atlanta to become co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church but also continued his civil rights efforts. On October 19, 1960, King and 75 students entered a local department store and requested lunch-counter service but were denied. When they refused to leave the counter area, King and 36 others were arrested. Realizing the incident would hurt the city's reputation, Atlanta's mayor negotiated a truce and charges were eventually dropped. But soon after, King was imprisoned for violating his probation on a traffic conviction. The news of his imprisonment entered the 1960 presidential campaign when candidate John F. Kennedy made a phone call to Coretta Scott King. Kennedy expressed his concern for King's harsh treatment for the traffic ticket and political pressure was quickly set in motion. King was soon released. biography.com
  7. Flush with victory, African American civil rights leaders recognized the need for a national organization to help coordinate their efforts. In January 1957, King, Ralph Abernathy and 60 ministers and civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches. They would help conduct non-violent protests to promote civil rights reform. King's participation in the organization gave him a base of operation throughout the South, as well as a national platform. The organization felt the best place to start to give African Americans a voice was to enfranchise them in the voting process. In February 1958, the SCLC sponsored more than 20 mass meetings in key southern cities to register black voters in the South. King met with religious and civil rights leaders and lectured all over the country on race-related issues. In 1959, with the help of the American Friends Service Committee, and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's success with non-violent activism, King visited Gandhi's birthplace in India. The trip affected him in a profound way, increasing his commitment to America's civil rights struggle. African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who had studied Gandhi's teachings, became one of King's associates and counseled him to dedicate himself to the principles of nonviolence. Rustin served as King's mentor and advisor throughout his early activism and was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. But Rustin was also a controversial figure at the time, being a homosexual with alleged ties to the Communist Party. Though his counsel was invaluable to King, many of his other supporters urged him to distance himself from Rustin. biography.com
  8. On March 2, 1955, a 15-year-old girl refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus in violation of local law. Teenager Claudette Colvin was then arrested and taken to jail. At first, the local chapter of the NAACP felt they had an excellent test case to challenge Montgomery's segregated bus policy. But then it was revealed that Colvin was pregnant and civil rights leaders feared this would scandalize the deeply religious black community and make Colvin (and, thus the group's efforts) less credible in the eyes of sympathetic whites. On December 1, 1955, they got another chance to make their case. That evening, 42-year-old Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus to go home after an exhausting day at work. She sat in the first row of the "colored" section in the middle of the bus. As the bus traveled its route, all the seats in the white section filled up, then several more white passengers boarded the bus. The bus driver noted that there were several white men standing and demanded that Parks and several other African Americans give up their seats. Three other African American passengers reluctantly gave up their places, but Parks remained seated. The driver asked her again to give up her seat and again she refused. Parks was arrested and booked for violating the Montgomery City Code. At her trial a week later, in a 30-minute hearing, Parks was found guilty and fined $10 and assessed $4 court fee. On the night that Parks was arrested, E.D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP chapter met with King and other local civil rights leaders to plan a Montgomery Bus Boycott. King was elected to lead the boycott because he was young, well-trained with solid family connections and had professional standing. But he was also new to the community and had few enemies, so it was felt he would have strong credibility with the black community. In his first speech as the group's president, King declared, "We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice." King's skillful rhetoric put new energy into the civil rights struggle in Alabama. The bus boycott involved 382 days of walking to work, harassment, violence, and intimidation for Montgomery's African American community. Both King's and Nixon's homes were attacked. But the African American community also took legal action against the city ordinance arguing that it was unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court's "separate is never equal" decision in Brown v. Board of Education. After being defeated in several lower court rulings and suffering large financial losses, the city of Montgomery lifted the law mandating segregated public transportation. biography.com
  9. In 1948, King earned a sociology degree from Morehouse College and attended the liberal Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He thrived in all his studies, and was valedictorian of his class in 1951, and elected student body president. He also earned a fellowship for graduate study. But King also rebelled against his father’s more conservative influence by drinking beer and playing pool while at college. He became involved with a white woman and went through a difficult time before he could break off the affair. During his last year in seminary, King came under the guidance of Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays who influenced King’s spiritual development. Mays was an outspoken advocate for racial equality and encouraged King to view Christianity as a potential force for social change. After being accepted at several colleges for his doctoral study, King enrolled at Boston University. During the work on his doctorate, King met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer and musician at the New England Conservatory school in Boston. They were married in June 1953 and had four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott and Bernice. In 1954, while still working on his dissertation, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. He completed his Ph.D. and earned his degree in 1955. King was only 25 years old. biography.com
  10. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and civil-rights activist who had a seismic impact on race relations in the United States, beginning in the mid-1950s. Among his many efforts, King headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Through his activism and inspirational speeches, he played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens in the United States, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, among several other honors. He continues to be remembered as one of the most influential and inspirational African-American leaders in history. Early Life Born as Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was the middle child of Michael King Sr. and Alberta Williams King. The King and Williams families had roots in rural Georgia. Martin Jr.'s grandfather, A.D. Williams, was a rural minister for years and then moved to Atlanta in 1893. He took over the small, struggling Ebenezer Baptist church with around 13 members and made it into a forceful congregation. He married Jennie Celeste Parks and they had one child that survived, Alberta. Martin Sr. came from a family of sharecroppers in a poor farming community. He married Alberta in 1926 after an eight-year courtship. The newlyweds moved to A.D.'s home in Atlanta. Martin Sr. stepped in as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church upon the death of his father-in-law in 1931. He too became a successful minister and adopted the name Martin Luther King Sr. in honor of the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther. In due time, Michael Jr. would follow his father's lead and adopt the name himself. King had an older sister, Willie Christine, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. The King children grew up in a secure and loving environment. Martin Sr. was more the disciplinarian, while his wife's gentleness easily balanced out the father's strict hand. Though they undoubtedly tried, King’s parents couldn’t shield him completely from racism. Martin Sr. fought against racial prejudice, not just because his race suffered, but because he considered racism and segregation to be an affront to God's will. He strongly discouraged any sense of class superiority in his children which left a lasting impression on Martin Jr. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, King entered public school at age five. In May 1936 he was baptized, but the event made little impression on him. In May 1941, King was 12 years old when his grandmother, Jennie, died of a heart attack. The event was traumatic for King, more so because he was out watching a parade against his parents' wishes when she died. Distraught at the news, young King jumped from a second-story window at the family home, allegedly attempting suicide. King attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he was said to be a precocious student. He skipped both the ninth and eleventh grades, and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15, in 1944. He was a popular student, especially with his female classmates, but an unmotivated student who floated through his first two years. Although his family was deeply involved in the church and worship, King questioned religion in general and felt uncomfortable with overly emotional displays of religious worship. This discomfort continued through much of his adolescence, initially leading him to decide against entering the ministry, much to his father's dismay. But in his junior year, King took a Bible class, renewed his faith and began to envision a career in the ministry. In the fall of his senior year, he told his father of his decision. biography.com
  11. African American families need wealth to increase access to good job opportunities. For example, wealth increases the likelihood of people being able to support education for themselves and their children, as well as being able to move to areas with more and better jobs. Yet African American families own much less wealth than whites, and the gap has only widened in recent years. On average, Black families now own about one-fifth of the total wealth, including the imputed wealth of defined benefit pensions, owned by whites. Just before the Great Recession, this gap had shrunk to one-fourth. (see Figure 7). However, African American families lost more wealth during and after the financial and economic crisis of 2007 to 2009. (see Figure 7) This resulted in a widening racial wealth gap over the past decade. Many factors will have to come together to overcome systematic obstacles that hinder African Americans’ ability to build wealth. A prolonged labor market expansion is a good start, but it is not enough, as the most recent data clearly show. More hiring has lowered the unemployment rate and created more employment opportunities, but African Americans are still more likely to be unemployed, have fewer job opportunities, get paid less, have fewer employer-sponsored benefits, and work in less stable jobs. All of these elements further widen the already large racial wealth gap. americanprogress.org
  12. The hurdles that African Americans face in the labor market from discrimination, pay inequality, and occupational steering are also apparent in indicators of job quality and not just in measures of job availability. Black workers, for example, typically get paid a great deal less than white workers. The typical median weekly earnings for Black full-time employees was $727 from July 2019 to September 2019, compared with $943 for whites. (see Figure 5) Comparing wages for men and women broken down by race and age again shows that these wage differences persist among full-time workers, indicating that massive gaps in economic security persist even when the labor market is strong. Lower wages for Black workers then translate into lower savings as families have less money left over after paying their bills. African Americans also receive fewer employer-provided benefits than white workers. Only a little more than half of African Americans—55.4 percent—had private health insurance in 2018, compared with 74.8 percent of whites. Craig Copeland, a researcher at the Employee Benefits Research Institute, estimates that among full-time, year-round workers, African American workers were 14 percent less likely than white workers to have any type of retirement plan through their employer. Fewer workplace benefits make it harder for African Americans to save, since they face higher costs and less help in preparing for retirement than their white counterparts. Not only do African Americans work for less pay with fewer benefits, they also face much greater job instability than whites. African Americans often work in occupations and industries that are economically less stable, such as retail services and parts of the health care sector including home health aides and nursing home workers. Moreover, African Americans tend to feel the fallout from a recession more intensely than do whites, as discussed below, and they then tend to be out of a job longer than other unemployed workers. (see Figure 6) African Americans’ employment fluctuates more than it does for whites. The employed share of prime-age African American workers fell by 8.3 percentage points from 75 percent just before the Great Recession started in September 2007 to a low of 66.7 percent in October 2011. (see Figure 5) In comparison, the respective share of white workers dropped by only 4.5 percentage points, from 81 percent in November 2007 to 76.5 percent in July 2010. Moreover, jobs for African Americans tend to disappear sooner when the economy sours and come back later when the economy improves—a phenomenon often described as “last hired, first fired.” The decline in prime-age employment rates associated with the Great Recession started two months sooner for African Americans than whites and lasted 15 months longer than it did for white workers. (see Figure 5) Unemployed African American workers look longer for a new job than whites. From September 2018 to September 2019, the average length of unemployment for unemployed African American workers was 25.5 weeks, compared with only 20.8 weeks for unemployed white workers. (see Figure 6) americanprogress.org
  13. Importantly, the employed share of both prime-age Black and white workers was still below the peaks recorded in the late 1990s, suggesting that the labor market is not as strong as the unemployment rate shows. (see Figure 4) Moreover, there is a persistent racial gap. The employed share of prime-age Black workers stood at 75.7 percent from November 2018 to October 2019, while it averaged 80.8 percent for white workers in this age group. (see Figure 4) Even after a decade of labor market gains, Black workers face more impediments to finding work than is the case for white workers. Fewer job opportunities make it harder for people to save for their futures. americanprogress.org
  14. Black women face unique burdens in the labor market. They are more likely to work than white women: 84.4 percent of Black mothers are breadwinners, which represents a larger share than for any other racial or ethnic group. Black women also often shoulder disproportionate financial burdens due to caregiving responsibilities for children, grandchildren, and aging parents. Moreover, Black women have a much harder time finding a job than white women and white men. The employed share of Black women was 57.2 percent in September 2019, slightly higher than the 55.2 percent of white women with a job. (see Figure 3) Yet their unemployment rate was 5.1 percent in September 2019, much higher than the 2.7 percent of white women who were out of work and looking for a job during that same period. African American women also work in lower-paying jobs than Black men or white women, which translates to a particularly steep pay gap for Black women. Among those who worked full time all year in 2018, Black women earned 61.9 cents for every dollar that white men earned. In comparison, Black men earned 70.2 cents for every dollar earned by white men, and white women earned 78.6 cents. African American women are also more likely than white women to juggle caregiving responsibilities for family members such as children and grandchildren. The lack of access to jobs in general, and to good jobs in particular, further exacerbates the financial challenges of these responsibilities. In the same vein, getting more education shrinks the wage gap but doesn’t close it, indicating that Black women face systematic obstacles in getting good jobs. Therefore, it is important to note that even obtaining a job, and sometimes a good job, is still not enough for Black women because of systemic barriers—sometimes rooted in race and gender bias—that drive how the U.S. economy values different types of work and the policies available to support women’s caregiving responsibilities. americanprogress.org
  15. African American workers regularly face higher unemployment rates than whites. There are several explanations for this. Blacks often face outright discrimination in the labor market. They also are less likely to attend and graduate from college, which stems from the fact that African Americans face greater financial barriers to getting a college education, ending up with more debt than white graduates and paying more for their loans. Yet even among college graduates, African Americans often face greater job instability and higher unemployment rates, as the data below show. For a decade now, the unemployment rate has fallen, improving the labor market outlook for many groups along the way. The U.S. unemployment rate for all workers who are 16 years old and older was down to 3.5 percent in September 2019 from its peak of 10 percent in October 2019, reaching its lowest point in 50 years. (see Figure 1) Amid the improving labor market, the African American unemployment rate fell to a historic low of 5.5 percent, and the rate for whites reached a 50-year low of 3.2 percent at the same time. More importantly, the unemployment rate for prime-age workers—those who are ages 25 to 54—fell to an average of 5.2 percent for Black workers and an average of 2.8 percent for whites for the period from November 2018 and October 2019. This was the lowest unemployment rate on record for Black prime-age workers dating back to 1973 and the lowest for white prime-age workers since 2000. (see Figure 2) The trend toward ever-lower unemployment rates should not obscure the fact that African Americans systematically suffer higher unemployment rates than whites, even in a good labor market. The unemployment rate for Black workers remains higher than that for white workers even when looking at subpopulations. The data further show that African Americans typically face higher unemployment than whites regardless of age, gender, education, and veteran status. (see Figure 3) Regardless of educational attainment by Black workers, they typically have a higher rate of unemployment than their white college-educated counterparts. Among college graduates, for example, the Black unemployment rate averaged 2.8 percent from November 2018 to October 2019, 40 percent higher than the 2 percent rate for white college graduates in the same period. (see Figure 3) While college attainment helps all workers get more access to better-paying, stable jobs with better benefits, the advantages are not evenly distributed. Black workers, no matter their level of education, still face impediments in the labor market—employment discrimination, occupational segregation, and unequal pay. americanprogress.org
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