Racial Inequality in Unemployment Could Widen Due to Automation

Unemployment and Automation

The robots are coming but some have reason to fear automation more than others. Studies have shown that twice as many women as men could lose their jobs to robots. Recent studies also show that the racial disparity in unemployment will be exacerbated by the impact of automation. Job losses due to automation are expected to significantly impact African-American unemployment levels, which, even without factors like automation, are already skewed.

A recent report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies entitled “Race and Jobs at High Risk of Automation” looked at the extent to which African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Whites are employed in the 30 occupations that have the highest probability of automation over the next 10 to 20 years.

The study found that automation negatively impacts African-American and Latino workers the most. That’s because 27% of African-American workers and over 30% of Latino workers are employed in just 30 occupations at risk to automation. By comparison, these same 30 occupations account for 24% of all White workers and 20% of Asian-American workers.

Compared to White workers, African-American workers are more than one-and-a-half times more likely to have jobs most susceptible to automation, including cashiers, cooks, fast food jobs, blue-collar occupations, production workers, laborers, and freight/stock/material jobs. African Americans are also three times more likely to be security guards, bus drivers, taxi drivers, and chauffeurs.


Without retraining and transitioning into new employment opportunities, it is expected that the African-American unemployment rate of 6.8% will soar to over 20% in the next 10 to 20 years.

That said, many believe the benefits to automation will outweigh any negatives, arguing that automation will make jobs safer and more efficient. The fact is, automation will hurt low-income workers the hardest, and in particular, African-American workers.

Dr. Kristen Broady, who authored the study, commented, “While automation will create new types of jobs, the African American community faces a unique combination of well-documented challenges that make it particularly vulnerable in labor market transitions.”

According to Broady, these challenges include an average household net worth that is one-tenth of Whites, making periods without income particularly difficult.

That doesn’t mean eventual widespread automation can’t be a positive change for African-American workers.

Broady added, “Economic disruption can, if properly harnessed, create new opportunities that address long-standing social inequities. For example, strategic interventions by policymakers that increase connections between educators and employers, equip workers in African American and Latino communities with premium skills for new job opportunities, and provide pipelines to help them secure and succeed in these positions can help reduce racial disparities.”

Black Unemployment Rate 3% Higher Than White Unemployment Rate

Even though the unemployment rate for African-Americans is at a record low of 6.8%, it is still significantly higher than the unemployment rate for White Americans at 3.7% and the unemployment rate of Asian Americans at 2.5%. This ongoing racial disparity in unemployment continues to cause concern for advocates and economists.

For example, Columbia, Missouri typically has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Today, the U.S. unemployment rate is 4.1%—in Columbia, Missouri, it’s 2.5%. But the African-American unemployment rate is at eight percent. African Americans make up 10% of Columbia’s population.

This is a long-standing trend in the U.S. labor market with the African-American unemployment rate averaging about twice the unemployment rate of White people. While the racial divide was the worst in the late 1980s and has improved a little over the last 30 years, the White unemployment rate is still just 54% of the Black rate.

Analysts say the racial disparity in unemployment in America is a result of hiring discrimination, less education, and a higher rate of criminal records (which excludes many occupations). Even subconscious racism is at play; employers tend to prefer resumes with “white-sounding” names over “black-sounding” names.

In addition to employment inequity, African-American workers still make less and possess just 15% of the median wealth of White families.

The racial unemployment rate remains wide, with White Americans finding jobs at twice the rate of Black Americans. Because of automation, that gap could grow into a chasm over the next 10 to 20 years. 



Race and Jobs at High Risk to Automation,” Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, December 18, 2017.

Table A-2. Employment status of the civilian population by race, sex, and age,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, last accessed January 25, 2018.

Recent Trends in Wealth-Holding by Race and Ethnicity: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances,” U.S. Federal Reserve, September 27, 2017.


Categories: Inequality, News