Hispanics and the Bottom Rung


You may be excused if you assumed African Americans and Hispanics are in the same economic boat. After all, neither group has reached economic parity with whites in America. Yet, when it comes to employment, the circumstances of these two groups as a workforce are far different.

The black unemployment rate averaged 10.8% in 2003, well above the nation's 5.7%. The Hispanic rate came in at a lower 7.7%. And Hispanics continue to land jobs while all too many blacks languish on unemployment rolls.

What's the difference? It's a touchy subject among the nation's blacks and Hispanics. Though the two groups are still allied in the struggle against economic injustice, the latter have become employer favorites. They've flocked to jobs in booming industries like construction. Dynamic Plumbing Systems in Riverside, Calif., for example, has a disproportionate number of Hispanic employees. About 220 of its 350 workers in California are ethnic minorities -- mostly Hispanic, says owner Tom Baker. Only four workers are African American.

HIGHER BLACK ASPIRATIONS. One reason for the disparity could be that Hispanics, especially undocumented workers, are often insecure about their education and embrace physical labor, according to Robert D. Lewis, owner of Canyon Fireplace in Anaheim, Calif. African Americans, on the other hand, come to the workplace with a bit more intellectual confidence.

In fact, blacks aspire to higher-level jobs because they tend to have more education. Only 57% of Hispanics age 25 or older have completed four years of high school, compared with 79% of blacks, according to U.S. Census data. And just 11% of Hispanics have at least four years of college, compared to 17% of blacks.

Economists say schools in the Latin American homelands of many of these workers are often inferior to the worst public schools in the U.S. And once people move here, immigrants generally prefer a paycheck -- which they often share with their families back home -- to a report card. Hence, many Hispanics don't develop the skills needed to land white-collar jobs.

"DROPOUT" JOBS. It's little surprise, then, that Hispanics typically work in lower-paying fields. Only 15% of Hispanics hold managerial or professional jobs, while nearly 23% of blacks do. More than 5% of Latinos work as farm and forest hands, compared to just 1% of blacks.

Their lesser skills and willingness to work in low-wage jobs -- which tend to be the easiest to come by -- mean Hispanics don't stay unemployed for as long as either blacks or whites. And undereducated Hispanics are more willing than blacks to take what many Americans call "dropout" jobs, says William Spriggs, executive director of the National Urban League's Institute for Opportunity & Equality.

Latinos' thirst for labor and employers' eagerness to hire them "is so powerful that it offsets the education advantage blacks have," adds William M. Rodgers III, chief economist at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

"NOT AS MONOLITHIC." Of course, these economic tendencies don't apply equally to all Hispanics, which are a diverse group. While the largest number of Hispanic immigrants coming to this country are Mexican, many others hail from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central American countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica. Each group has its own patterns of behavior and skills. "Hispanics are linked by language, but they are also distinguished by countries and cultures," says Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr., president of the Rainbow Coalition. "They are not as monolithic a group as African Americans."

Certain Hispanic nationalities benefit from higher education and income, which usually translates into better workplace status. Though the overall unemployment rate for Hispanics hovered around 7% last year, Puerto Rican men had a 10.1% jobless rate -- nearly identical with that of black men, according to figures crunched by the Heldrich Center's Rodgers. Mexican women had an 11% jobless rate, higher than the 9.1% jobless rate of black women.

But Cuban men, who Rodgers says tend to be better educated, had a 5.9% rate, and Central and South American men claimed a 6.5% rate. The reality, says Jackson: "White Hispanics are handled differently than black Hispanics in this country."

DIFFERENT STRUGGLES. Economic research supports that statement. For example, Cubans, who are often lighter in color, receive more positive treatment in the workplace, which translates into a 2.2% gain in earnings, according to a preliminary study led by William Darity, director of the Institute of African-American Research at the University of North Carolina and Jason Dietrich of the U.S. Treasury Dept. Yet, Mexicans and Dominicans get less favorable treatment, and Hispanics overall earn 8% to 9% less than whites do for the same work. But that's less than the 12% loss in earnings blacks experience due to discrimination.

The difference? Hispanics' immigrant standing contributes to notions of a more family-oriented, more punctual, and more studious people than black Americans, Darity says. Both groups still contend with a great deal of negativity and stereotyping in the marketplace. But while the struggle for Hispanics is about getting better employment, for many blacks right now, it's about getting employed, period. By Roger O. Crockett in Chicago


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