Column

Unemployment Is Skyrocketing — and Black Men Need to Ask for Help

Even the broadest calamities expose systemic imbalances, and we’re faced with a difficult decision

A man collects unemployment forms at a drive thru collection point in Hialeah, Florida on April 8, 2020. Photo: CHANDAN KHANNA/Getty Images

BBlack men, there is an alarm at the gate, and the threat is called unemployment. The Labor Department announced last week that 6.6 million workers filed for unemployment benefits last week — bringing the total unemployment claims to a staggering, unprecedented 16.8 million. Make no mistake: This is the direct consequence of Covid-19’s impact on businesses large and small, across every sector, and owned by (and employer of) every kind of person that exists. But as I say with every piece, even the broadest calamities expose systemic imbalances.

By all measures, Black Americans fare worse labor prospects than their White counterparts. They face more widespread unemployment, get paid less when they have a job, and experience more employment instability. Further, the Black community is disproportionately uninsured or underinsured, and have fewer financial resources and employment benefits with which to weather this major public health emergency. According to a recent report released by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a typical White family has 10 times the wealth of the typical Black family, leaving Black people far less able to afford days — let alone weeks — without income.

Another report, this one by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, found that a single $400 emergency expense would leave 30% of Black college-educated households unable to pay all their bills. For those without a college degree, that figure increases to nearly 60%. One unforeseen major appliance purchase, one surprise trip to the mechanic; that’s all it takes.

This is troubling. And there is no clear end in sight. Even after stay-at-home measures begin to lift — a process that will be uncertain at best and chaotic at worst — more than 16 million Americans, perhaps significantly more, will be without a job to go back to.

While the government has promised resources to alleviate the enormous financial difficulties, getting them will be challenging. If you qualify for the $1,200 stimulus check, you’ll see that infusion relatively soon — assuming you have a checking account and can receive direct deposit. Yet, Black American communities continue to be the least “banked” in the country; only 46% of Black American families are considered “fully banked,” meaning they use only traditional banking services and not alternative systems like payday loans or check-cashing facilities. (For contrast, 77% of White households are considered fully banked.) If you receive your check by mail, it could take up to 20 weeks to receive it, according to the House Ways and Means Committee timetable.

Even after stay-at-home measures begin to lift — a process that will be uncertain at best and chaotic at worst — more than 16 million Americans, perhaps significantly more, will be without a job to go back to.

And if you’re waiting for the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Plan Loan, good luck. Racial discrimination still exists in banking. According to the New York Times, a nonprofit organization that sent “mystery shoppers” to 32 different banks in Los Angeles found that potential borrowers with identical financial profiles were treated differently by bankers based on their race. Black and Latino borrowers were asked for more detailed financial documents and were given less information about many banks’ available products than White borrowers.

All of this is exactly why it’s so important that we don’t look at this as a handout. That we don’t let pride come between us and that money. Government assistance is a core tenet of a liberal democracy; that’s how you keep citizens from falling through the cracks until they’re able to get back on their feet and help themselves. But racist dog whistles like “welfare queen” reinforced negative stereotypes of the Black community — when in truth, White working-class Amercians are the biggest beneficiaries of government aid. (Next time you get in a discussion about “welfare,” bring up the Senate Agriculture Committee’s $867 billion farm bill from 2018; it provides subsidies to farmers’ nieces, nephews, and first cousins, even if those relatives don’t work directly on the farm.

Don’t let distorted racial narratives deter you from seeking assistance during this unprecedented time. Ask. Call your local congressional office, explain your situation. Have them walk you through your questions. They know of all organizations in your community that can be of assistance, including local business leaders. They know of individuals who can be of assistance in the private sector. Call your mayor’s office; if they’re busy, wait. Don’t take no for an answer. There are small business grants — but we can’t be afraid to inquire. You can start here.

I get it. It’s in our cultural DNA not to ask for help. I’m the youngest of four children by a long shot, an “oops” baby of sorts — there’s a big gap between me and the next youngest sibling. My parents also had me late in life, which gave me the privilege of being around older Black men, great-uncles and grandfathers who were set in their ways and had hours of stories to tell me. Stories that became lessons. Lessons that shaped my constitution and outlook, although I didn’t yet have the language to express it, as a Black man moving through a world that wasn’t always open to him.

There was great-uncle Clyde, with his laugh that filled the room, constantly rubbing his dark bald head. His beautiful weathered skin reflected his days of picking cotton — cotton that he would send me every year for my birthday in a Ziploc bag, with no note, as he couldn’t read or write. His stature was tall. His stature was proud. His gift was the spoken word. He would ride a bus for two days to come up north from Florida to visit, as he refused to fly. I can still hear his greeting — “Na’ Michael” — always in a thick country drawl that never failed to make this Northern boy laugh.

Granddad Kenny was my fishing buddy, using a cane pole to find bites along the banks of the river. As morning turned to afternoon to evening and his Old Granddad and Squirt kicked in, the target of the cane pole was no longer the water but whoever or whatever was close by. He too, would sit, tell stories in the living room, laughing so hard his belly would shake in his customary white T-shirt, eating a hard boiled egg that went easy on his toothless gums.

Seeing the two of them in the living room was like watching the barbershop scenes in Coming to America, with an added dash of President Obama and Jay-Z sitting in their chairs. All the bases were covered, every aspect of social construct. It was here that I learned their distrust of government and financial institutions — Granddad keeping his money underneath the mattress in his room, buying his family cars with cash, never credit — and the medical system. “If you tell me to take salt and bourbon out my life,” I once heard him tell a doctor, “what’s the point of living?”

It wasn’t until the two of them passed away that I could begin to imagine the emotional and mental burdens. Never once expressing feelings. Never once expressing personal hurt — anger, yes, but anger is easier than vulnerability. After he died, I learned that Granddad had been the first Black man to own a business in Lansing, Michigan, only to have it taken away by the government due to eminent domain. (Later, he would own a summer home across the state in Idlewild, the first Black resort town.) That Clyde had worked cotton fields owned by a man with the same last name as my grandfather’s; that he had finally earned the money for his house by paving highways in Florida, the same highways that took away my grandfather’s business in Michigan.

But imagine if I had heard those vulnerabilities growing up. How much better I might have handled the pressure of college, on the verge of a breakdown, the walls of my one-bedroom apartment feeling like they were closing in. How my father might have better understood how to navigate the pressures of college tuitions, mortgage, providing for his children, while still expressing his feelings. When I was growing up, he was Superman, invisible and silent, handling everything that needed handling. To this day, the only time I have seen my father cry was when my granddad — his father-in-law — passed away in the hospital. And even then, he stepped outside as the tears began to fall.

This is why, in February, I didn’t tell my boys — Aren, Jason, Tyrone, Craig, Randolph, Yaniv, and Dave (don’t forget that the Coming to America barbershop had a couple of Jewish homies) — that I had been hospitalized with a rare swelling along my neck. It’s why I laid there alone for three days, taking conference calls in my hospital bed. It’s why my editors at LEVEL are just finding out now that I filed my first piece from there.

It’s also why none of them knew until now that a few weeks later, I contracted Covid-19, continuing my daily radio shows for SiriusXM and occasional TV hits while navigating the fevers and coughing and eventual loss of taste and smell. (Don’t worry, I’m back to 98% normal.) It’s why I put my therapist on standby throughout the entire ordeal, but found it difficult to call her.

In all those cases, my Superman complex took over — shielding me from anxiety, but also from support.

This is what I learned, behaviorally, from Granddad, Uncle Clyde, and my dad.

This is why it’s so hard to ask for help.

But if I’m going to challenge Black men to ask for help during this pandemic, it’s important that I share my own difficulties. I’m a work in progress; we all are. According to a paper published in the American Journal of Mens Health, research showed that many Black men think being a “real man” means providing for family, achieving the respect of others, attaining financial success, and being tough and self-sufficient. “Tough Guy Syndrome” has become a source of self-esteem and self-respect, taking root when Black men feel they’ve been shorted on quality access to quality education, socioeconomic opportunities, and racial equity.

Not every situation can be fixed by toughing it out. Not when we’re facing mass unemployment on an unprecedented scale, and not when the road climbing out of this is steeper for us than for most.

Black man, I am here. We are here. We are all our brothers’ keepers — and we all have to ask for help.

Mike Muse Intersects Politics x Pop Culture. He is host of "The Mike Muse Show" on SiriusXM & Co-host "Sway in the Morning" on SiriusXM & ABC News Contributor

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