Black people in Britain are more likely to be unemployed than those in the United States, especially during recessions, with successive UK governments "failing to protect minority ethnic groups", research reveals.

A paper presented on Friday at the British Sociological Association's annual conference in Leeds shows that in the last three recessions, unemployment among black British men was up to 19 percentage points higher than among those in America.

Yaojun Li, professor of sociology at Manchester University, told the conference that in Britain black male unemployment reached 29% in the early 1980s recession, 36% in the early 1990s and 22% in 2011. Unemployment figures for black men in the US were 22%, 17% and 22%.

Black women in Britain were also worse off than those in the US. Unemployment for black women in Britain in the three recessions reached 25%, 26% and 17%, compared with 20%, 12% and 13% in the US. Overall, one in 12 black Britons are unemployed, compared with one in 16 in the US. Li, who examined 2.7m responses from three datasets in the UK and US, said: "There is greater ethnic inequality in Britain than in the USA for both sexes … If you are black you are more likely to be without work in the UK."

The US had long recognised that black people faced entrenched discrimination in the job market, Li said, and had intervened to level the playing field. Britain, he added, had experienced a much more "abrupt and extensive deindustrialisation than the US". Despite this, Li points out, Britain had no equivalent of affirmative action or "federal procurement policy which requires institutions to have staff representative of the population". "These have really helped reduce the unemployment rate among black people there," Li said.

The Guardian reported last month that the current recession had left almost one in two young black people without a job. Li agreed with the analysis, pointing out that the trend had been noted in 2010. "You have to discount those that are economically inactive, including those in education. The student population is very high. Once you just looked at those who are unemployed, then you see that young black unemployment runs at about 50%."

Diane Abbott, the Labour MP whose recent article in the Guardian highlighted the looming crisis in jobless black youth, said the figures were alarming. "Britain is undergoing a jobs crisis, with unemployment at its highest level in 17 years. This research tells the story of the inequality time bomb that Britain is going to have to face up to."

There has been growing disquiet among charities and companies about the "slow response" from the government, especially given ministerial claims that the coalition would shield the most vulnerable from the effects of the downturn.

"I think that there has been a lack of awareness about the fact that so many black people are starting from such a low economic base that their life chances are so affected," said Tunde Banjoko, chief executive of the welfare-to-work charity Local Employment Access Projects, and an adviser on race to the Department for Work and Pensions.

"In the US there is affirmative action and people do get in on those programmes. But once in they rise on their own merits."

The Department for Work and Pensions said: "We know times are tough for jobseekers and tackling unemployment remains a priority for this government. That is why we introduced the work programme, which provides tailored support to help people overcome any barriers that may be preventing them getting a job. We have also launched the youth contract, which will give half a million young people opportunities through apprenticeships, work experience and a wage incentive for employers."

© Guardian News and Media 2012

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