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Jobs, Wealth And The Racial Gap


Roland Fryer studies economic disparities and race in America as an economics professor at Harvard University. Fryer is the recent winner of the MacArthur genius fellowship and he joins us from Concord, Massachusetts.

Roland, welcome to the program.

PROFESSOR ROLAND FRYER: Oh, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: How deep are the disparities between whites and other groups - blacks and Hispanics - when it comes to jobs and when it comes to wealth?

FRYER: If you look at full-time workers, for example, blacks and Hispanics earn about 33 percent, a third less than whites. When you look at unemployment, I believe the unemployment rate for African-Americans now is about double what it is for whites. So we've made progress, no doubt, since the days that King was here, but we have long ways to go.

CORNISH: Looking at these numbers, say, for black unemployment, it is about 16 percent as of August. The national average is 9 percent. And what accounts for that gap?

FRYER: A variety of factors. But I'll tell you, one of the big factors is the skill gap. The education gap, if you will. If you take something like eighth grade test scores, for example, did you just say, hey, if we compare racial minorities with the same eighth grade test scores and then look. Are they as likely to be unemployed? Or are they making similar wages? The answer is yes.

CORNISH: What are you seeing from the Obama administration in terms of investment, say, in education or in work training, that you think would make a difference?

FRYER: Hmm, that's the tough question. I think there have been some promising things that could make a difference, like a Race to the Top. It encourages...

CORNISH: And this is the education program that gives grants to schools who kind of put focus in areas that the administration...


CORNISH: ...feels is helpful to education.

FRYER: Yes, however we haven't gone nearly far enough. I think there are a lot of excellent schools around the country who have shown us that any child, regardless of their background, can be educated. I mean Dr. King didn't say those words exactly but it can be inferred in a lot of his messages.

The administration could take further steps to say, for example, if there are teachers who aren't performing, make it easier to remove them. I know that the controversial thing, but you asked the question...


FRYER: ...what they could do and that's one thing.

CORNISH: So, Roland, a lot of your research focuses on youth and sort of the disparities that manifest themselves; the testing stage, the school stage. But looking at these numbers for unemployment now, does this portend a trend that is only going to widen this gap? I mean are we getting on a trend here that, if not irreversible, is going to be very difficult to get off of.

FRYER: I think we are. I think that the gaps in education that you see now has been going on for some time, and it's not getting a lot better. It hasn't gotten a lot better since the 1980s. So as you see labor markets tighten - we're in a recession - people are making very, very careful judgments of whom to hire home to fire, you're going to see what I call a flight to quality, which is people are going to be very, very careful about the skills of those who they actually higher.

And when that happens, when people can't afford to get a hiring decision wrong, you're going to see gaps exacerbate as long as you have an underlying skill gap. So I think there's got to be too fronts if you want to decrease these disparities.

One, a recent paper of mine and others have shown that about 25 percent of the disparities can be attributed to some forms of discrimination. So you need anti-discrimination policy, maybe even affirmative action. But the other 75 percent is because we have a skill gap, and we need targeted policies and now to erase that skill gap. Because you're right, if we don't figure this out then what's to come is going to be scary.

CORNISH: At the same time, both of your suggestions sound politically untenable in the current environment.


CORNISH: I really can't imagine President Obama and the Republicans with these ideas.

FRYER: That's why I'm in Cambridge, Massachusetts and not Washington, D.C.



CORNISH: You're safely ensconced at Harvard.


CORNISH: But the real question here, you know, what's politically viable in this environment.

FRYER: You know, political viability is a moving target. I mean the question is, as a country, when are we going to decide that the zip code that you're born into shouldn't really determine your life course. If anything is politically palatable, it's creating educational opportunities for young people. And, you know, Martin Luther King fought for access. I really believe that the civil rights issue of the 21st century is about quality.

Minorities can go to school but unfortunately the schools that they too are a far inferior to the ones of non-minorities. And its teachers with the least amount of experience, et cetera, teach in those schools. We've got to flip that and we've got to allow everyone to get a fantastic education in America, if we want to help close some of these gaps that we see in unemployment and wages among adults.

CORNISH: Roland Fryer, professor of economics at Harvard University, speaking with us from Concord, Massachusetts.

You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.