In these tough economic times, Americans from all kinds of backgrounds are hurting financially. There seems to be depression reports in the news almost every day. Reports in the media have also focused a lot of attention on layoffs at large corporations, many of whom are shedding employees by the thousands. With that in mind, it may lead many of us to presume that middle class Whites are getting hit the hardest in this recession.

Certainly, many middle class Whites and their families are feeling the brunt of the recession and many find themselves struggling to make ends meet for the first time in their lives. However, as MSNBC reports, the data shows that on the aggregate level, it’s actually Blacks and Latinos that are being hit the hardest by the current recession:

Last hired, first fired: This generations-old cliche rings bitterly true for millions of Latinos and blacks who are losing jobs at a faster rate than the general population during this punishing recession. Much of the disparity is due to a concentration of Latinos and blacks in construction, blue-collar or service-industry jobs that have been decimated by the economic meltdown. . . .

Since the recession began in December 2007, Latino unemployment has risen 4.7 percentage points, to 10.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Black unemployment has risen 4.5 points, to 13.4%. White unemployment has risen 2.9 points, to 7.3%. . . .

William Darity, a Duke University professor, said that “blacks and Latinos are relative latecomers to the professional world … so they are necessarily the most vulnerable.” . . .

“Not saying that it’s racism,” [an executive search consultant] said, “but if a manager or a senior executive is looking at a slate of individuals and has to let one of them go, chances are he or she will not let the person go that they spend a lot of time with at the country club or similar places.”

My point is not to play the “Oppression Olympics” and to argue that this group is much better off than another group, or one group is more oppressed than another. Instead, I would like to place these findings in a larger sociological context.

Many Americans feel that our society, while still not a perfect meritocracy, offers Americans from all backgrounds the best opportunities for success and achieving the American dream than at any time in our history — that the playing field is more level and equal now than it’s ever been.

I would agree that the opportunities for socioeconomic success are the most equal that they’ve ever been in American history. But that does not mean that everybody is on an equal playing field. Instead, what this MSNBC article and other sociological studies have shown is that Blacks and Latinos continue to experience particular institutional disadvantages in their efforts to achieve economic equality with Whites.

Specifically, as the article points out, Blacks and Latinos tend to be disproportionately located in service and manual labor industries. Beyond the fact that these industries tend to pay lower wages in general, they are also highly vulnerable in times of economic recession and we’re seeing this play out right now. As such, Blacks and Latinos experience their first disadvantage.

Their second disadvantage is that even for Blacks and Latinos who have professional occupations that normally are well-paying, again as the article points out, they are relative newcomers to such occupations and as such, when layoffs come, they are more likely to lose their jobs due to the “last hired, first fired” principle.

The third point of disadvantage is that due to the legacy of systematic discrimination in the past, Blacks and Latinos have been unable to accumulate the same level of family wealth compared to Whites. This is even despite the fact that while the income gap between Whites and Blacks and Latinos has declined, the wealth gap has actually increased in the past several decades.

This wealth gap is important because it provides a cushion or barrier to soften loss of employment and other financial difficulties. Therefore, because Blacks and Latinos have less accumulated wealth than Whites, they have a much smaller cushion to fall back on and therefore, are more susceptible to financial catastrophes.

Ultimately, these institutional disadvantages play a large part in why Blacks and Latinos seem to struggle more than Whites or Asian Americans when it comes to achieving economic success. They may be well-educated, motivated, and hard-working, but they also have to overcome more structural inequalities and barriers that make them more financially vulnerable in times of recession.