Economic context

Racial Inequality in the Labor Market and Employment Opportunities

K. Steven BrownSeptember 28, 2020

The contributions of workers of color in building and supporting the US economy cannot be overstated. Yet for much of American history, people of color (Black people in particular) have faced inequities that deprive them of the chance to fully participate in and reap the benefits of the American economy. Racial inequality is a long-standing and fundamental feature of labor and work in the United States and reflects a host of structural disadvantages and discriminatory practices that are manifest in higher unemployment, lower wages, occupational segregation, and limitations on career advance and upward economic mobility for workers of color.

In the context of the Covid-19 economic crisis, workers of color shoulder a disproportionate share of the economic burden created by job losses in specific industries and health risks incurred through work outside the home in lower-paying, but “essential” jobs. 

This brief explores the persistent inequities and disparities in outcomes experienced by people of color in the U.S. labor market through key data points, delves into root causes based on a review of the evidence, and identifies key gaps in our knowledge of why and how labor market inequality endures. In addition, the brief summarizes key policy levers and strategies to dismantle discriminatory employment practices and improve employment and economic outcomes for low-wage workers generally, many of whom are people of color.