Unemployment in Black Cities: Oakland, California
As part of our continuing series, we look at black unemployment in the Northern California city.
According to the most recent survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, the West is the region of our country lightest on populations of color. As of 2010, a bit less than 10 percent of this nation’s African American population made their homes there; a number dwarfed by the South (at around 54 percent), and beaten handily by the Midwest (19 percent) and the Northeast (18 percent). All in all, on a comparative basis, the American West just isn’t very “black.”
There are, however, large pockets of African American communities that almost make it seem as if this isn’t the case. One prominent example is Oakland, California. It is a city often described as San Francisco's grittier, younger brother. Nearly 30 percent of Oakland’s 390,000-strong population is African American, a proportion much higher than San Francisco’s six percent, and even the 11 percent to be found in the ethnic stew that is Los Angeles.
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Following a migratory pattern seen in Eastern and Midwestern cities, many African Americans made their way over to Oakland and its environs during a manufacturing boom in the early twentieth century. The city had a big, busy port and - for a time, anyway - was a Western hub of the automobile industry. This opened up the job market to unskilled labor, a category many of those early black arrivals fell into.
Unique opportunities existed for the more educated among the African American workforce. For example, a pioneering black physician, William M. Watts, opened a hospital that exclusively serviced patients of color who were not permitted entry at other Oakland hospitals. Watts' facility also offered training and job positions for nurses of color.
Those were the "salad days," or early years, for the city’s black population, but those days ended decades ago. With the decline of American manufacturing, Oakland slipped economically, shedding many of the jobs its businesses created during the boom years. By the 1960s, Oakland became a dangerous place -- best to be avoided. This volatile atmosphere, combined with its proximity to San Francisco, made the city a powder keg of African American political radicalism. The Black Panther Party, a movement that blended elements of Marxism with black empowerment concepts, was birthed in the city around this time.
Oakland has remained a center of activism ever since, most notably as a hotbed for the recent Occupy Movement. What it hasn’t been, however, is a hotbed of jobs. Oakland has followed the general pattern of joblessness in California, which, as a state, has suffered from the same decline in manufacturing as its big northern municipality. But Oakland has it significantly worse. The city’s unemployment rate stood at a steep 13.7 percent in May of this year. That was higher than the unemployment rate in the state of California (10.4 percent in the same time frame) and much worse than in nearby San Francisco (7.4 percent). It almost goes without saying that Oakland's unemployment rate was significantly deeper than its national counterpart, which stood at 8.2 percent at the time.
One of the contributing factors for this is that the city’s economy has never really been able to replace that lost manufacturing work. It’s still heavily dependent on the government for jobs. As of 2010, exactly half of its top ten employers were public sector enterprises. Collectively, these enterprises employed a full 15 percent of the city’s workforce.
This is problematic because the government, at all levels, is downsizing thanks to crushing national and state debt levels. And this particularly affects African Americans as they form a high proportion of the public-sector workforce.
Oakland bears the misfortune of having an economy that hasn’t been able to keep up with the times. It exists in a state that is thirsty for work, and it’s close to other cities and regions – San Francisco, Silicon Valley – that are much more successful at generating jobs. So Oakland has really got its work cut out for it in its quest to create more work.