Are You African American, Have a Criminal Record and Can’t Get a Job?
It is no revelation that the U.S. unemployment rate for African Americans is remarkably higher than for Whites. Even more disheartening, but perhaps not surprising, is the disproportionately high rate of unemployment for African Americans with criminal records versus Whites with convictions for the same offenses.
When an African American has been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony crime, the chances of finding employment is slim to none, no matter how long ago the act took place. Unfortunately, for many, becoming a productive member of society through conventional employment will never occur – even landing what many consider menial work such as cleaning offices at night has become next to impossible for the vast majority of African Americans with criminal histories.
According to a 2011 study conducted by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the number of U.S. citizens with a criminal record total about 65 million, with African Americans comprising the largest number of those virtually shut out of the job market. The report reveals that neither the age of the offense, nor steps toward post-conviction improvement are seldom taken into consideration when potential employers make hiring decisions. This condemnation has thus created a second-class segment of society that is unemployable and left to discover other creative means for earning a living. Sociologists have found that higher rates of unemployment among minorities, particularly African American males, is associated with increasing crime rates. However, to lump all convicted felons into the undesirable category is simply unfair and unequal treatment.
So, what is an African American man or woman faced with this situation to do? There has to be a law which aims to prevent this new form of employment discrimination from spreading. The answer is yes, there is. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has sued a handful of companies including Aramark, a company which employs janitorial and food service workers, for discriminating against applicants with criminal records forcing the company to change its hiring practices. In some states, it is illegal to deny employment to someone who has been convicted of a crime, misdemeanor or felony. Recently, lawmakers in Wisconsin voted in favor of a bill which would uphold an existing law which makes it illegal to either fire or refuse to hire an individual based solely on the existence of a criminal record. Prior to the new legislation, those with convictions were able to secure employment based on their skills and qualifications, notwithstanding their criminal history as long as the offense did not compromise the health, safety and welfare of others.
Reform is coming thanks to measures such as those provided by NELP. Steps are being taken to incorporate this cursory form of job discrimination as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and enforceable under Title VII by the EEOC. The researchers with the NELP study found that “using arrest and conviction records to screen for employment is an example of the kind of ‘neutral’ selection criteria that invites Title VII scrutiny.” There is hope, and the wheels of justice are slowly turning to help millions of African Americans who have been held hostage by their criminal records and banned from employers who feel that convicted felons should not be afforded the opportunity to support their families. By conducting a simple Google search, one can find job ads ranging from janitorial work to telemarketing which routinely state that no one with a criminal record need apply.
No matter what strides have been taken to correct behavior which led to their criminal conviction or how rehabilitated an individual with a criminal record has become – landing a job is a daunting task, at best. In some instances, even earning an advanced college degree offers very little immunity to the barriers that convicted felons often face. He or she may be a pillar of the community. However, getting a job is still not likely to occur with mainstream corporations such as Home Depot, ABM, and Radio Shack. As a result, many African Americans have been forced into entrepreneurship operating a wide array of businesses including landscaping, car detailing, and catering. Thanks to the efforts of organizations such as NELP, ultra tough on crime, right-leaning state judiciaries and legislators whose flagrant abuse of the criminal justice system to practice Jim Crow and classism will be forced to act in the best interest of society. These individuals are the same members of both the legal and political communities who constantly complain about high crime rates in their cities – yet continue to support policies which eliminate at-risk and economically disadvantaged men and women from the job market.
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