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BY TIM VANDENACK
ELKHART -- Umeki Williams would flip burgers if given the opportunity.
"I'm looking for anything right now," said the unemployed mother of four, who lost her job at a portrait studio last June. "I'm not discriminating against anything."
But even fast-food eateries aren't hiring, which explains the African-American woman's presence this day at Visual Designs Hair Studio here. She's using the computer at the shop -- Williams, a salon regular, doesn't have Internet access at home -- to file job applications and follow up on others she's already submitted.
It's been tough, she said, noting her depleted savings account and broken-down car. However, with four mouths to feed aside from her own and no unemployment benefits to fall back on, she has few options.
"My only option is that if I don't find employment, my kids and I will go homeless," she said.
The economic downturn hasn't spared any group. Unemployment -- 9.4 percent nationwide and 18.7 percent in Elkhart -- has jumped across the board as the economy has soured.
But the African-American community has been especially hard hit, with unemployment in the sector now totaling 14.5 percent nationwide, more than 5 percentage points above the overall figure, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Black folks, you know, they struggle every day," said Willy Dale, holding 6-month-old daughter Brendayah outside Nader Food Mart, an Elkhart convenience store that caters to a largely African-American and Hispanic clientele.
He was laid off from a factory here late last year and looked for a new job for a time, but has since tired of filling out applications only to be told that nothing's available. "It ends up being pointless in your mind," he said. "You get frustrated."
'A GLOOMY CLOUD'
Even in good times, unemployment among African-Americans is higher than that of whites or the overall population.
In 2007, for instance -- before the recession hit -- the nationwide unemployment rate among blacks totaled 8.3 percent. They topped the list, with rates for other subgroups trailing -- 3.2 percent for Asians, 4.1 percent for whites and 5.6 percent for Hispanics -- and the overall U.S. figure at just 4.6 percent.
"Part of the problem is persistent discrimination in the work market," said Algernon Austin. He's director of the program on race, ethnicity and the economy for the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that studies economic policy as it pertains to low- and middle-income workers.
That's only part of the problem, however.
The manufacturing sector, employer of an inordinate number of African-Americans and the major component of Elkhart County's economy, has been particularly hit by the down economy, meaning the black employment rate has suffered correspondingly.
Moreover, says Austin, new hires and younger workers are often the first to get the ax when the economy dips, and African-Americans disproportionately fit into those categories.
"Everyone is being hurt, that's across the board," said Austin. "However, there are differences."
Brent Curry, a black member of the Elkhart City Council, echoes that.
"The African-American community was already behind before this economic downturn hit," he said. "It's definitely worse (now) because we already were at a deficit."
Violet Simon, co-owner of Visual Designs, the Elkhart hair salon, doesn't want to dwell on race, though.
"I don't play the race card. I don't like talking like that," she said, Judge Joe Brown meting out justice on the TV in the background.
Even so, there's no denying that times are tough, customers are hurting and business is down.
"It's been a change of atmosphere," said Angela Hackworth, a hairdresser at Visual Designs. "It's like a gloomy cloud over people's lives."
CUTTING SOME SLACK
Over at Nader Food Mart, proprietor Gadeer Almanaser frequently has to cut customers some slack when they're short a dime or quarter on their bills. Though the store, which advertises outside that it accepts food stamps, serves a low- to moderate-income neighborhood east of the city center, it wasn't like that before.
Then there's the talk among customers, more desperate these days.
"It's messed up," said David, a 55-year-old ex-con with short dreadlocks who didn't want to give his last name. "I need a job right now."
He's resorted to collecting aluminum cans for the first time in his life to scrape together money.
"We thought we was going to see a better change since we have a black president," he said. "But it's going to take time. He's trying to straighten it out, what the white folks did."
Laid off last November from a factory job, David said he'll do whatever it takes, "within the law," to get by. But not everyone's so inclined, apparently.
Tyrone Crockett, another customer, remembers seeing a man whack a woman over the head in the neighborhood not too long ago and snatch her purse.
Crockett was working at a tire recycling company but quit early this year due to an injury and hasn't been able to find employment since.
"It wasn't like this when I first moved over here," said the transplant from South Bend, sporting corn rows and a baggy green T-shirt. "When I first came here I had no problem getting a job."
Another woman, hearing the talk about the economy, loudly interjects that she may have to take matters into her own hands.
"I know it's hard times. I'm about to go out and rob someone," she said with a laugh. "That's the truth."
A 'FRACTURED ECONOMY'
Most immediately, Curry thinks the African-American community ought to get a fair shot at the stimulus money earmarked in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, meant to jump-start the U.S. economy. Jobs created with the money could help address the black unemployment disparity.
"Take a look at us, too," Curry said.
PolicyLink, an Oakland, Calif.-based research group tasked with advancing "economic and social equity," shares the same goal, warning that ignoring employment differences could have larger repercussions. It will be keeping close tabs on how stimulus money is spent, with an eye to making sure those most in need get help.
Low-income communities and "those of color" have been hit "first and worst" by the economic downturn, said Radhika Fox, federal policy director for the group. Not paying deliberate attention to them as efforts to fix the economy unfold could perpetuate a system of haves and have-nots.
If African-Americans and others hit hardest don't get due attention, "we will continue to have a very fractured economy," Fox warned.
Meanwhile, Dale, standing outside Nader Food Market with his daughter, said he may try for "a part-time gig" at McDonald's in the absence of anything better.
Ebony Logan, inside the store, said she may leave town if the economy doesn't improve and create new job opportunities. She's out of work as she awaits the birth of her fourth child.
"We don't know when it's going to be fixed. It might take two years. It might take three years," Logan said. "It's just life, I guess. I don't know."