For African-Americans, the Great Recession continues. This is both troubling and ironic because it coincides with the administration of the nation’s first black president.
The black community’s understandable pride in President Barack Obama’s existence (and that of Michelle Obama and Sasha and Malia) has inoculated the president against constructive criticism in his handling of the economy, especially as it relates to African-Americans.
According to recent economic reports, black unemployment rates ticked down below 13 percent. This unexpected bit of good news is welcome but does little to alleviate black America’s massive job crisis. At the current rate of economic growth, it would take seven years for America to return to pre-recession employment levels.
Despite being re-elected in 2012 by a margin that represents a near-mandate in a closely divided nation, Obama remains hamstrung by a Republican-controlled Congress determined to reduce the size of government through fiscal austerity measures.
Many economists, perhaps most notably New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, argue that a lack of federal investment since the Recovery Act (popularly known as the stimulus bill) in 2009 has been a drag on the recovery.
Congressional Republicans have emerged as the leaders of a hyperpartisan ideological worldview that disallows them from crafting the kind of political compromises that Obama has routinely extended, often to the disappointment of his own political base. Politically, this makes perfect sense. Opposition to the Affordable Care Act helped inspire the rise of the tea party and sweep Republicans into power during the 2010 midterm elections.
What Obama characterized as his party’s “shellacking” threatens to become an enduring Republican congressional majority in light of the once-in-a-decade redistricting that ensures safe political seats for both Republicans and Democrats along sharply partisan lines.
Tea party Republicans have taken a page out of Ronald Reagan’s handbook by decrying the social safety net as government largesse doled out to the undeserving poor. But their political enmity for Obama has undermined the basic function of government through a persistent pattern of obstruction, leading to annual political confrontations over the debt ceiling, the enactment of the sequester and the downgrading of America’s credit rating.
During the 1960s, Southern Democrats, known as “Dixiecrats,” used all of their power to block civil rights legislation. The current crop of Republicans, in their naked antagonism toward affirmative action, Obamacare and jobs legislation, echoes the substance, if not form, of civil rights-era conservatives who argued that big government was coddling blacks.
Obama’s recent efforts to launch a new economic agenda based on a formula of tax reform and federal investments in America’s crumbling infrastructure offer a pragmatic approach to governance. But it’s one that has already been summarily rejected by Republican leaders in the House and Senate.
For millions of black Americans, who experienced higher rates of unemployment and poverty even before the Great Recession, the lack of a robust federal jobs plan leaves them behind in an economic wilderness.
The Associated Press’ recent finding that 80 percent of all Americans will confront economic insecurity during their lifetime (ranging from unemployment to relying on welfare) is a harsh reality with which large parts of the black community have lived for decades.
Obama’s biggest policy victory on behalf of blacks remains -- once it’s fully implemented in 2015 -- the Affordable Care Act, which will offer millions of uninsured citizens the opportunity to have health care for the first time. The stimulus package, especially in its ability to save states from laying off police, firefighters and teachers, also greatly benefited African-Americans.
Despite the successful passing of the biggest piece of domestic social legislation since the Great Society, Obama’s record on the economy, especially black unemployment and poverty, has been mixed.
Record Wall Street profits exist alongside soaring black poverty rates, heartbreaking violence in major cities such as Chicago and a black unemployment rate topping 12 percent, which would be a national crisis if that same figure applied to whites (which stands at 6.6 percent).
The Obama administration’s failure to nationalize the banks at the root of the mortgage crisis has meant that, unlike Wall Street and the auto industry, millions of American homeowners failed to receive a bailout (including $300 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program funds that might have served as a second stimulus), an unconscionable oversight that has further dragged the economy.
Obama’s biggest recent mistake on the economy was his failure to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of 2012. Had he done so, the president would have commanded the leverage to craft the “grand bargain” that has eluded him with this Republican Congress and prevented the annual looming budget crisis. Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare continue to be a political obsession among party activists and elected officials who vow to “starve” the new health care law of the funds required for implementation.
Obama’s efforts to focus on the economy should be applauded. And his remarks that economic misery can foster increasing racial tensions are historically accurate. In two instances this past month Obama has spoken candidly about race (in the case of Trayvon Martin) and class (discussing how the 1963 March on Washington was about jobs and racial justice). He needs to do this more often.
But his acknowledgment of the burgeoning gap between the 1 percent and the rest of America does not go far enough. The revival of a nation in which more than 46 million people live below the poverty line and millions more belong to the working poor requires bold and imaginative legislative proposals.
For blacks, who are disproportionately poor, the most effective legislation would require a mix of universal (health care) and targeted (jobs, education) legislation that could provide not only equal opportunity but also equal outcomes, which, in the final analysis, will be the true measure of Obama’s impact on black America.
A half century after the March on Washington, America needs bold and imaginative legislation to jump-start the tepid growth of the American economy, including a much-needed jobs and reinvestment plan in urban cities that house some of the nation’s poorest, and largely black, neighborhoods.
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Peniel Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University.
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