Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

What the Census Says about the Black Male

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

What the Census Says about the Black Male

Article excerpt

What the Census Says About the Black Male.

In my forty years as a professor of mathematics, I seldom had an African-American male in my calculus class. Since every engineer must study calculus, that means that very few Black men were probably becoming engineers. If they didn't become engineers, what careers did they pursue?

With the aid of census data, I was able to answer the question. While I was at it, I compared the data for 1980 with the numbers in 1990 in order to see how the situation of the Black male had changed during the decade. Since the Equal Employment Opportunity Act goes back to 1972 and the phrase "Affirmative Action" was common by 1975, I expected to see a big change.

In the multi-volume summary of the census, there is a table titled, "Detailed Occupation of Civilian Labor Force by Sex and Race." It tells how many workers were in each of hundreds of occupations. These numbers are based on a survey of a sixth of all households, which is quite a large sample. Since most eyes glaze over when viewing a sea of numbers, I will cite only a few. But the few I quote are typical and represent some of the more populous occupations. If you want to check out an occupation I don't mention, you can find it in the census report.

These numbers are as objective as any facts we are likely to get about the Black male, who has been the subject of heated attention for years and, recently, of a gigantic march. The numbers provide a starting point for calm discussion.

This is what I found, and while it does not paint a happy picture, it challenges all of us to acknowledge that our nation faces a major problem.

Before I sample some specific occupations, I will compare the overall situation of Black men in 1980 and 1990.

In 1980 about one in eight men were Black. Since there were fifty-six million men in the civilian labor force, we might expect one-eighth of them, or seven million, to be Black. However, only 4.7 million were. The difference between the ideal seven million and the actual 4.7 million is 2.3 million. Where were these 2.3 million African-American men?

About 360,000 were in the armed forces -- an equal-opportunity employer -- and about 200,000 were in prison or jail. That leaves about 1.7 million presumably unemployed.

Another way to look at these numbers is to note that Black men occupied only one out of twelve non-military jobs held by men, when ideally they should have had one out of eight.

How did things look in 1990? By then African-American men held one out of eleven jobs, a slight improvement over 1980, but still far from ideal. Black men were under-represented in the labor force by 2.1 million. Where were these 2.1 million men? There were about 350,000 in the armed forces, but now there were about 500,000 in prison or jail (a number to reach 700 thousand in 1994), leaving some 1.3 million unemployed.

When we turn to particular occupations the data becomes more dramatic. Let's first look at the engineers, the occupation that first piqued my interest.

Of the 1.3 million male engineers in 1980 only 31,000 were Black. That is a ratio of only one in forty-three, as compared to the ideal one in eight. To put it another way, if one out of eight engineers were Black, there would be 160,000 Black engineers. That means that in an ideal world there would be 129,000 more Black male engineers than in the real world.

In 1990, there were 1.6 million male engineers, of whom 49,000 were Black. The proportion of Black male engineers had grown to one in thirty-two, but still well below the ideal. In an ideal world, there would be some 151,000 more Black male engineers. …

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