America's Economic Freefall: The Failure Of Political
Leaders, Including Barack Obama
15 January 2010
THE AMERICAN economy
has gone through what has been called the Great
Recession. But the crisis in Black communities across
the U.S. constitutes an outright depression--spurring
desperate conditions that have gone largely unreported
because of the racist indifference of the government
and mass media.
Unemployment has reached catastrophic levels in
Black communities. The numbers are staggering.
Official African American unemployment was 15.6
percent in November 2009, compared to an overall
national rate 10 percent--and those statistics leave
out workers who have been forced into part-time jobs
because they couldn't find full-time work, or who have
been pushed out of the workforce altogether.
For young African Americans, male and female, aged
16 to 29, joblessness is as high as 30 percent,
according to the Washington Post. According to
one report, between 2006 and 2009, more than 6 percent
of Black men have lost their jobs--in real numbers,
that adds up to the disappearance of more than 489,000
Unemployment among Black women 20 and older has
risen by more than 4 percentage points since the
beginning of the recession, bringing their total
unemployment rate up to more than 11 percent--which 75
percent higher than for white women in the same age
The overview of unemployment doesn't begin to
convey the extent of the jobs crisis in Black America.
Officially, the nation's highest unemployment rate is
in Detroit, which is 83 percent Black--joblessness is
a staggering 28 percent. Unemployment on the mostly
Black South and West Sides of Chicago comes in second
at 22 percent. The top 10 areas in the country where
unemployment is concentrated include Black
neighborhoods in Toledo, Ohio; Atlanta; and St. Louis.
But a study conducted by the University of
Wisconsin-Milwaukee shows that the jobs desert for
African Americans is more severe than the official
The study found Black male unemployment for men
aged 16 to 64 to be unprecedented and overwhelming.
Buffalo had the highest percentage of Black men either
unemployed or permanently out of the labor force at 52
percent. That was followed by Milwaukee at 47 percent
and Chicago at 43 percent. Among 35 major metropolitan
areas, African Americans had the "lowest" unemployment
in Washington, D.C. at 27 percent. In most of those 35
cities, Black unemployment hovered somewhere between
30 and 35 percent.
The problem is not just an issue of not having a
job. The loss of jobs in Black communities is
exacerbating social disparities that have historically
caused a lesser quality of life for African Americans.
For example, the rapid loss of jobs means that
greater numbers of African Americans are losing their
health care, which will only worsen disparities around
health care between Blacks and whites that already
exist. In 2007, when Black unemployment was
approximately 10 percent, 20 percent of Blacks were
without heath insurance. With Black unemployment
growing steadily today, the numbers of the Black
uninsured are sure to rise, too.
Unemployment also impacts rising levels of poverty
in Black communities. A recent report found that 90
percent of Black children are part of families that
will use food stamps by the time they are 20 years
old. All told, 40 percent of Black children live in
poverty, according the government's official
statistics. According to the census, a full quarter of
African Americans were living in poverty in 2007--two
years before the unemployment crisis in Black America.
Rising unemployment is also exacerbating the
foreclosure crisis in Black neighborhoods across the
While foreclosures are not tracked by race, the
number of Black homeowners who face the threat of
losing their homes is believed to be twice that of
whites. A study conducted by the Woodstock Institute
in Chicago found an 18 percent jump in foreclosures
across the city in 2008, but most were concentrated in
African American neighborhoods like Englewood and West
Englewood. In these two neighborhoods alone, there
were 725 foreclosures in a nine-month period.
The Woodstock Institute has found that for every
one home foreclosure on a given block. the value of
the remaining homes decrease by 1 percent. Thus, the
heavy concentration of home foreclosures in African
American neighborhoods is rapidly destroying the value
and worth of the remaining homes in the neighborhood.
According to the Center for Responsible Lending, 53
percent of African Americans who bought homes in 2006
have already lost or will lose their homes to
foreclosure in the next few years, compared to 22
percent of white borrowers facing foreclosure.
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THERE HAVE been many explanations offered for the
job disparities between African Americans and whites
during this recession. Some focus on education and
training as the main problem with the employability of
African Americans. Others point to the jobs that
African Americans have been concentrated in, like
manufacturing--these are the sectors that have
experienced the greatest job losses.
There are certainly elements of both explanations
that are true. But the larger issue in the
overwhelming way the recession is impacting Black
America has to do with racism.
It's amazing the lengths to which politicians,
Black and white alike, will go to avoid mentioning
race and racism as factors in the ever swelling number
of Black employed.
For example, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)
received extensive news coverage for "confronting"
President Barack Obama about Black unemployment and
"prodding" him to do more about it.
But when asked at a press conference why Obama
should do more for Blacks when everyone is suffering,
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) defensively said, "We're
not talking about race. We're talking about hardest
hit, where their unemployment rates are the
greatest...We're talking about qualified areas of
economic hardship, where 20 percent or more of the
population is at or below the poverty line, and we
want at least 10 percent of the resources targeted."
In case anyone was confused, Lee's colleague, Rep.
David Scott (D-Ga.) reiterated that the CBC's concern
isn't "based on the foundation of race," but rather
focused on the "foundation of need."
Despite the tepid urging of the CBC, Barack Obama--who
won a whopping 95 percent of the votes of African
Americans in the 2008 election and benefited from an
unprecedented Black turnout--persisted in ignoring the
particular ways that the crisis is devastating Black
While Obama has proven himself to be an expert in
singling out African American men and parents in
general by highlighting what he feels to be their
deficiencies in child rearing, the Black president
lacks the same initiative in identifying the crisis in
In an interview with USA Today, Obama
responded to a question about Black joblessness,
saying, "I will tell you that I think the most
important thing I can do for the African American
community is the same thing I can do for the American
community, period--and that is get the economy going
again and get people hiring again...I think it's a
mistake to start thinking in terms of particular
ethnic segments of the United States, rather than to
think that we are all in this together, and we are all
going to get out of this together."
But why not talk about race? It's not that some
Blacks--for example, undereducated African
Americans--are losing all the jobs while others are
doing well. According to the New York Times,
college-educated African Americans are twice as likely
to be unemployed as college-educated whites.
In every head-to-head comparison between Black and
white workers--workers without high school diplomas,
male workers, female workers or teenage
workers--African American workers consistently do
Several studies conducted over the last decade
confirm that race remains a factor in whether or not
employers hire African American workers.
A report several years ago in the American
Economic Review, titled "Are Emily and Greg More
Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?" found that
applicants with Black-sounding names received 50
percent fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding
names. Sociologists Devah Pager and Bruce Western
found that white men with a criminal record were more
likely to be called back for a job than Black men with
no criminal record at all.
In a study conducted last year by the Journal of
Labor Economics found that Latino, Asian and white
managers are more likely to hire white workers than
African American workers. The study, which was based
on hiring patterns at a national department store
chain, found that when Black managers were replaced
with a non-Black, the number of new Black hires
declined from 21 percent to 17 percent, and the number
of white hires increased from 60 to 64 percent. In a
typical Southern store, the numbers were even more
stark--the removal of Black managers resulted in new
Black hires dropping from 29 percent to 21 percent.
These studies suggest that racism, pure and simple,
is a major factor in the disproportionate numbers of
Black workers being laid off in the U.S. economy. This
does not mean that other factors aren't also involved,
but neither are those factors separate from the
influence of racism either.
If politicians and pundits are going to blame
education and training for part of the unemployment
disparities, then they should admit that those factors
also reflect racism in American society. To take one
example, schools that cater to mostly African American
students have worse resources and funding, which
results in educational disparities.
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IT'S TRUE that the recession is having a
devastating impact on all workers--Black, white and
Latino. It's also true that while the U.S. government
has the resources to create new jobs through work
programs and infuse hundreds of billions of dollars
into the American economy to lift up all
workers, the Obama administration instead chose to
give away a trillion dollars to the bankers that
crashed the economy in the first place.
The result has been millions of dollars in bonuses
for Wall Street bosses and peanuts for the working
class, in the form of a few extra dollars here to
expand unemployment benefits and a few extra dollars
there for more food stamp usage.
Despite this general picture, though, the
recession's impact in African American communities is
catastrophic and demands special attention--if only
because employers left to their own devices will
rehire Black workers last, if at all. The only way to
ensure that African American workers are employed or
receive additional benefits to tide them over while
the jobs crisis persists is to create special programs
to those ends.
This, historically, has been the basis of
affirmative action. When it was first introduced in
the mid-1960s as a remedy to centuries-long racism and
discrimination, President Lyndon Johnson famously
Freedom is the right to share, share fully and
equally, in American society--to vote, to hold a
job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is
the right to be treated in every part of our
national life as a person equal in dignity and
promise to all others.
But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away
the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free
to go where you want, and do as you desire, and
choose the leaders you please. You do not take a
person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains
and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line
of a race and then say, "You are free to compete
with all the others," and still justly believe that
you have been completely fair.
Thus, it is not enough just to open the gates of
opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability
to walk through those gates.
Without recognizing the way in which racism factors
into the current crisis, and thus the need for
particular programs to create more job opportunities
for African Americans, politicians and Black community
leaders inevitably put the onus on African American
individuals to come up with their own solutions. So
while the CBC recognizes that more Blacks are losing
their jobs and the devastation this is having in their
districts, some of the solutions being pondered by CBC
members border on the ridiculous.
For example, well-known African American Rep.
Maxine Waters from South Central Los Angeles
recognizes that racism is at play in unemployment
disparities, saying, "We don't like to talk about it,
but there's still discrimination in our
society...Black college graduates can't get
professional jobs as easily as whites. We have Blacks
disguising their voices on the telephone or trying to
hide their blackness in responding to job
announcements. It's real."
On the other hand, Waters puts the onus on Black
individuals, arguing that Blacks should work for less
money to make them more attractive to employers or
move to a new area if there are no jobs in the city
they are in--though she does not suggest where African
American men or women should then move in order to
find a job.
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THE ECONOMIC gains that African Americans made in
the 1990s began to erode in the recession of
2000-2001, resulting in almost 10 percent unemployment
in 2006, as the 2000s economic expansion was nearing
its height--and the rapid increase in home
foreclosures in 2006 and after.
These factors combined with the genuine excitement
that arose with the possibility of electing the first
African American president in American history
resulted in an unprecedented turnout of African
American voters in the 2008 election. New studies
confirm that it was the Black vote, fueled by a
historic turnout from Black women and Black youth,
that was decisive in putting Obama over the top in the
Despite this historic level of support in the
election, Obama continues to treat African Americans
as political strangers, if not a political
afterthought. Black male unemployment is the highest
it has been since the Second World War, Black poverty
is on the rise, African Americans are losing their
homes at breakneck speed--and meanwhile, the first
African American president fiddles while Rome--or in
this case, Harlem, Englewood, Lawndale and Detroit,
Obama has already made clear on a whole number of
issues--from LGBT equality to abortion rights to
immigrant rights and beyond--that he will do
absolutely nothing until a grassroots movement makes
his silence and inaction impossible.
During the campaign, he promised to do even less
for African Americans, fearing to be painted as "the
Black president"--the result is that he is now going
out of his way to ignore the particular problems in
African American communities resulting from the
disproportionate impact of the economic crisis.
Independent Black politics is in a devolving
crisis, stuck between giving Obama "time" and
defending him against the disgusting racist attacks
from the right. In the meantime, Black America is
Until there are political mobilizations that demand
more resources for jobs, housing, schools, welfare and
a new social safety net for the working class in
general but specifically for Black workers and Black
communities things are going to get worse before they