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Cherrie Bucknor / Harvard University

It has been weeks since I have crossed the stage, shook the hand of my college’s president, smiled at my family in the audience, and received my Bachelor’s degree. It struck me knowing that I had finally got to that very moment. The moment I had been waiting and working at for four whole years, and a bunch before that. Although I can thank my family for the endless support, thank my friends for the long nights of studying, and myself for remaining determined through absolutely everything—I also must thank my professors. Especially the professor who allowed me to reach my fullest potential, push me past my limits, and allowed me to see that I am capable of achieving whatever goals I set for myself. Virginia Rutter, the professor for the independent study, Margin to Center: Black Women in Policy, facilitated the unique class, where we talked to a lot of great women, including  Cherrie Bucknor, a doctoral student in Sociology at Harvard University. Her research interests include class, race, gender, labor unions, and social policy. Previously, Cherrie Bucknor worked at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) where she developed a series called Young Black America. Sitting across the table from her at lunch in Cambridge, I was able to hear all that she had to say about her series, her advice, and so much more:

TC: What advice do you have for Black women who want to attend an ivy league school?

CB: This is probably going to sound a bit ridiculous coming from someone who is currently at Harvard and who got their undergraduate degree from Penn, but I would encourage them to not necessarily strive to go to an “Ivy League School”, but to go to the school that they believe will be the best fit for them, both academically and emotionally. That should be the ultimate goal. As in many things in life, there will be sacrifices to make in these two areas (and others), but the goal should be to try and end up at the school that will maximize those two areas and others that are important to you. Oftentimes, when we think of college, we only think about the academic aspect. But, for me, both in the past and currently, the non-academic parts of my life on campus really help to keep me on a good page emotionally when I may be dealing with things in class or with my research that would otherwise keep me down.

I would also encourage them to speak with Black women who are already at the institution to hear from them what their experience has been like. Our experiences as Black women are unique in many ways and for me, it was invaluable to hear from the Black women who were already in my program. The Black women who paved the way for us will have advice on how to navigate the particular environment that you will find yourself in. Every school and department is different, with their own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s best to know as much going in as you can.

TC: What gets you through your days/moments when you are discouraged?

CB: The short answer to this would be “my people”. More specifically, I have a community of people, both in the Boston area and elsewhere who get me through the moments when I feel discouraged. This includes my parents, siblings, and other family members who have been on this journey with me since the beginning and who are just as invested in seeing me reach my goals as I am. The friends that I spent the past 5 years with in DC are just as much a part of my life as they were when I lived in DC. They are always there for me to vent to. They know just the right GIF or meme to send me that will make me literally laugh out loud.

Over the past year, I have also been lucky to develop friendships with fellow students in my department and throughout Harvard who I really vibe with on many different levels, whether it’s because we have similar research interests, political interests, experiences as scholars of color, or we watch the same TV shows or hate the same sports teams. While these friendships are relatively new, and some were unexpected, I can already tell that they will be “my people” for years to come.

Lastly, as I’ve mentioned above, the non-academic aspects of my life here also get me through the moments when I am discouraged. My work with our recently-certified graduate student union brings me so much joy because of the possibility of making Harvard a better place through the bargaining process. I have also been working with a great, diverse group of students who share my interest in prison abolition and who experience similar challenges as students of color on campus. Every week or so, I know that I’ll be sitting in a room with or on a conference call with people who are committed to doing good research and good work in our community. I feel very fortunate in that regard.

TC: Why did you choose to focus on Young Black America as a series when you were at CEPR? What was it like to conduct and then communicate this type of research?

CB: My Young Black America series was actually my first solo-authored work at CEPR and it was about 6 months into my time there. I say this all the time, but I definitely feel as though CEPR spoiled me as a young researcher. The latitude that I was given during my three years there was truly remarkable. This particular research came about because of a curiosity that I had. I really just wanted to answer the question “what’s going on with young Blacks in America right now”? As a young Black woman, I wanted to know how our community was doing. The recovery from the recession was going along too slowly in my opinion and I had heard a great deal about the experience of workers overall, or Black workers overall, and I wanted to see if the story was the same for young Blacks. I presented my idea to my office mentor and boss and they both were excited about it and basically told me that I could design the series however I want and they would support me.

Given the fact that many people associate educational attainment and success with economic success, I decided to do the first two pieces on recent data on high school graduation rates, college entrance, and college completion. The third piece was about employment and unemployment rates, and the last piece was about wages. The series told a story of increasing educational attainment that has not necessarily translated to significant gains in employment and wages, leaving persistent racial and gender gaps.

As I mentioned above, this series was my first solo-authored work at CEPR. The very first piece in the series also ended up leading to my first interview with a reporter. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I went into our communications director’s office and proceeded to vehemently protest against doing the interview and how I was sure I would make a fool of myself. However, after a mini media training session, I gained some semblance of confidence, or at least enough to go through with it, and it went perfectly fine. To this day, I still get nervous and worry whenever I have to speak to a reporter or do a radio interview, but I just remind myself of this: what good is it to do research that you think is important if nobody hears about it?



TC: Cherrie made it clear. As I move out of the world of undergrad and maneuver my way into a whole new environment in graduate school, having, as she puts it, “my people” when I get discouraged is exactly what I need. What is an important take away is that having “my people” will not be enough. I must make sure that I am focusing on myself too—the things that make me happy, the moments that bring me joy, and I must value my self-care because being a woman of color, the external social forces in our society are working against me. They do not want to see me rise nor do they want to see women of color shine. However, I must understand that since I am a woman of color, my self-care is revolutionary… and the bonds I create with other Black women as my future unfolds will be too.

Tasia Clemons is a recent sociology graduate from Framingham State University as well as a graduate assistant Hall Director at Canisius College. She tweets at @TasiaClemons. Cherrie Bucknor is a doctoral student at Harvard University and currently working on two projects: examining the union wage premium for young workers in the United States overall and by race and education level, as well as a project titled “Race, Economy, and Polity in the Trump Era.” She tweets at @CherrieBucknor.


Bucknor is a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (D.C.)
Bucknor is a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (D.C.)

Here’s what we know: Even with a college degree, young blacks still face lower employment rates and higher unemployment rates than their white counterparts. I’ve shown previously that young blacks are entering and completing college at higher rates than in the past. The third report of my Young Black America series examined the employment and unemployment rates of young blacks and whites from 1979 to 2014, and I made a striking discovery: Employment gaps between blacks and whites have become worse since the onset of the Great Recession. The jobs recovery, apparently, is not colorblind.

From 1979 until the Great Recession, young blacks with college degrees had employment rates that were basically the same as their white counterparts. However, once the recession hit, employment rates decreased for all – even those with college degrees. At the same time, the gap between blacks and whites widened, with college-educated young blacks being 3.9 percentage points less likely to be employed than their white peers (see Figure 1).

figure 1 bucknor part 3In 2007, 87.2 percent of young blacks with college degrees were employed, and 88.3 percent of their white counterparts were as well. Both rates bottomed out in 2011, with a black employment rate of 80.3 percent and a white employment rate of 86.3 percent. This gap of 6 percentage points for college-educated young blacks and whites represents the largest racial employment gap since 1979.

In 2014, employment rates still hadn’t fully recovered, with young blacks having more ground to make up than whites. During that year, 83.3 percent of young blacks with college degrees were employed, and 87.0 percent of young whites, for a racial employment gap of 3.7 percentage points. Young blacks with college degrees had an employment rate that was still 3.9 percentage points below their pre-recession level. Young whites with college degrees were only 1.3 percentage points below their pre-recession employment level.

The data on unemployment rates tell a similar story. Even with a college degree, unemployment is a fact of life for many young blacks. In 2007, the unemployment rate of young college-educated blacks was 4.6 percent, 2.8 percentage points above their white counterparts (see Figure 2). Black unemployment peaked in 2010 at 9.1 percent, more than twice the rate of whites (4.2 percent). In 2014, black unemployment dropped to 6.4 percent, still 1.8 percentage points higher than its pre-recession level. Young whites with college degrees had an unemployment rate of 2.6 percent, 0.8 percentage points higher than their unemployment rate in 2007.figure 2 bucknor part 3

Looking at young blacks overall can often mask the different experiences of black men and women. This is certainly true for unemployment rates during the recession and recovery. Black men were hit harder during the recession, and still have higher unemployment rates than black women. In 2007, young black men with college degrees had an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent, and black women had an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent. These rates peaked in 2010 at 10.7 percent and 8.0 percent for black men and women respectively, before falling to 7.1 percent and 5.9 percent in 2014.

By contrast, throughout most of the recession and recovery, white men and women have had virtually identical unemployment rates.

These numbers show that employment and unemployment rates of college-educated young blacks are still far from their pre-recession levels, suggesting that the economic recovery is incomplete. They saw their employment rate drop 6.9 percentage points during the recession, and have only recovered 3.0 percentage points. Their unemployment rate increased 4.5 percentage points, and recovered 2.7 percentage points. Despite the gains in educational attainment that I found in earlier reports in this series, there are still noticeable racial and gender differences in labor market outcomes.

Cherrie Bucknor is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She is working on a year-long series of reports on Young Black America. Follow her on Twitter @CherrieBucknor.

Women – and black women in particular – have seen significant improvements in high school completion rates since the turn of the century, almost cutting in half the black-white gap for women during that time, as I shared last month. But has that meant an increase in college entry and completion – especially since a college degree should demand higher wages in the labor market?

The second report in my Young Black America series of reports examined just that. I found that Figure 1young black women and men are entering and completing college at higher levels than in the past. Yet, these gains haven’t been enough to noticeably close the gap between them and their white counterparts.

From 1980 to 2013, women had higher college entry rates than men, with white women having the highest entry rates of all (see Figure 1). In 1980, 46.9 percent of 19-year-old white women had entered college (including community college). The college entry rate for white men was 41.0 percent and the rate for black women was 40.0 percent. Black men had the lowest entry rate of 25.9 percent, 14.1 percentage points lower than that of black women.

Since then, college entry rates have significantly increased, with most of the increases occurring between 1980 and 1990. During that time, entry rates for both black and white women increased about 20 percentage points, and rates for white men increased 22 percentage points. College entry rates for black men increased the most, rising 29 percentage points from 1980 to 1990.

Despite making the most progress in entry rates, young black men still lag behind black women and whites. In 2013, the entry rate of black men was 60.0 percent, 34.1 percentage points higher than their entry rate in 1980. However, this rate was still 6.6 percentage points less than black women, 9.0 percentage points less than white men, and 17.9 percentage points less than white women.

Figure 2But entry is different from completion. The data on racial gaps in college completion rates were even more striking. Although my analysis of high school completion rates showed a significant convergence between black and white women, the exact opposite is the case with college completion rates (see Figure 2). In 1980, 11.5 percent of 25-year-old black women had completed college with a bachelor’s degree or higher. During the same year, the college completion rate of white women was 21.3 percent, for a black-white gap of 9.8 percentage points.

Things got worse not better: In 2013, the gap in college completion rates between black and white women was 21.4 percentage points, with completion rates of 19.7 percent and 41.1 percent, respectively. The same is true among men. In 1980, the black-white gap in completion rates for men was 12.9 percentage points, and it increased to 17.6 percent in 2013.

These growing rather than shrinking gaps confirm that there’s more work to be done. Young blacks are 30 percentage points more likely to enter college than in 1980, with entry rates increasing 26.6 percentage points for black women and 34.1 percentage points for black men. These are significant improvements, but remain far behind their white counterparts. Young blacks also still lag almost 20 percentage points behind young whites in college completion rates.

But the growth—rather than continued decline—in black-white gaps highlights the need to examine why these racial gaps persist, and in the case of completion rates, continue to widen.

Increases in educational attainment are important, but not just for their own sake. College degrees should lead to higher employment rates, wages, and other labor market outcomes. However, large gaps in completion rates are likely to result in sizable racial disparities in these outcomes. Upcoming installments of my Young Black America series will examine whether that is in fact the case.

Cherrie Bucknor is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She is working on a year-long series of reports on Young Black America. Follow her on Twitter @CherrieBucknor.

Often, when we see improvements by all (be it in educational attainment, income, health, etc.), we overlook the fact that gender or racial gaps still persist or have even gotten worse. There has been much attention given, and rightfully so, to all of the progress that women, and black women in particular have made. But, what about where women stand in relation to men? Or where black women stand in relation to white women? If significant gaps still persist, can we be satisfied with the progress we’ve made? Or is there still work left to be done?

As a young black woman, sociologist, and researcher at an economic policy think tank, I am particularly sensitive to this and make a point to address these issues in my work at CEPR (Center for Economic and Policy Research). It’s part of the reason why I began my Young Black America series of reports that strive to answer the question, “What’s going on with young blacks today?” An important goal of the series is to explore the intersection of race and gender while tackling the issues facing young people today.

From "Young Black  America" part 1, Center for Economic and Policy Research
From “Young Black America” part 1, Center for Economic and Policy Research

The first report in the series found that there is positive news on both the gender and racial dimensions in regard to high school completion rates. After decades of mostly stagnant and depressing numbers, both women and men have seen marked improvements in high school completion rates since 2000. Furthermore, throughout the entire period I looked at (1975-2013), women overall have achieved higher completion rates than men.

But, what I found most interesting was what happens when you throw race into the mix. In 1975, 88.7 percent of white women between the ages of 20 and 24 had completed high school with either a high school diploma or a GED. During that same year, the rate for black women was only 76.9 percent, for a black-white gap of 11.9 percentage points. Since then, white women have maintained this sizable advantage, which averaged about 11 percentage points through 2000. In 2000, the completion rates for black and white women were 79.0 percent, and 90.6 percent, respectively.

Fortunately, since 2000 there has been a significant convergence in completion rates for black and white women. The completion rate of black women has increased 10.4 percentage points since the turn of the century, reaching 89.4 percent in 2013. During the same time, the completion rate of white women increased at a slower pace and stood at 94.5 percent in 2013. The result was a much smaller black-white completion gap of 5.1 percentage points – 57 percent less than the gap in 1975.

Closing achievement gaps should be an important part of any economic agenda. While a lot of attention is given to racial and gender achievement gaps separately, the double burden of being both a woman and a racial minority can present a unique problem for black women.

So, yes, we should take a moment or two to celebrate these accomplishments. The high school completion rates of young women are at their highest ever, and remain higher than the rates of men. Although black women still lag behind their white counterparts, this gap has been trending downward for more than a decade and hopefully will continue to do so.

But as we all know, in order to realize racial and gender economic equality, education is just one piece of the puzzle. Increases in high school completion rates are important because they widen the pool of potential college entrants and graduates – with a college degree becoming increasingly necessary in today’s economy. However, even a college degree doesn’t guarantee labor market success, as my former colleagues Janelle Jones and John Schmitt at CEPR have shown. We must not ignore issues of racial and gender discrimination, or other structural issues that are at the root of many of the economic problems we face in this country. Subsequent reports in my Young Black America series will address these and other issues facing young blacks.

Cherrie Bucknor is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She is working on a year-long series of reports on Young Black America.@cherriebucknor