PHILADELPHIA—Black America is largely unemployed, in debt and in prison, civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson told hundreds gathered at the annual National Urban League conference Friday, before asking them what they were going to do about it.
"If you're someone with credit card debt, stand," said Jackson. A segment of the audience stood. "If you're someone with student loans, stand," he said. Nearly everyone in the audience stood. "And if you're someone looking for a job, stand," he said. Many more people tentatively raised their hands.
"That's the state of black America," he said. "We are free but not equal. Free to be unemployed."
A host of big name civil rights leaders joined Jackson Friday in warning of the unemployment and incarceration crisis for black Americans, citing statistics including that more than half of male African-American high school dropouts are unemployed, according to an analysis from the left-leaning site Remapping Debate, and that of the over 2 million Americans in prison, half are black.
In June, the Labor Department's job numbers also showed that the African-American unemployment rate had risen from 13.5 to 13.7 percent, while the national employment rate had stayed even, at 7.6 percent.
Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said Friday that the unemployment problem was driven in part by employers who used credit checks in their hiring decisions.
"Credit checks have nothing to do with your ability to work," she argued. "Your credit is bad because you don't have a job."
MSNBC commentator and civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton argued that black Americans were facing higher unemployment rates because of where they work.
"Every since Obama has been in, there's been an increase in jobs in the private sector but black unemployment has increased. Why? Because we work in the public sector," he said.
In November, the National Urban League warned that the fiscal cliff would disproportionately affect African Americans because they make up a disproportionately large share of the public sector workforce.
A report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute added to the Urban League's fears, finding that the greater number of African Americans in the public sector had also meant higher rates of job loss during the economic recession.
But the Urban League said here it is determine to stem the tide of job losses. A jobs expo at the conference included hundreds of employers, including Target, CVS and UPS. The conference, which has the theme "jobs rebuild America," also hosted a career and networking fair, with sessions on how to pitch a personal brand or the art of the interview. And the majority of conference-goers showed up in business dress, a detail not lost on Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, a Philadelphia-based literary consultant attending the conference.
"If you notice how people are dressed, it's 8 a.m. in the morning and yet they're suited up, suited down, and ready for business," she said. "There are a lot of African American conferences around the country. But the National Urban League has said: 'This is what we are all about.'"