Two years ago, Barack Obama spent 40 minutes at a podium in Philadelphia discussing the remnants of our country’s original sin: The racism and institutionalized discrimination that enmeshed African- Americans in a vicious cycle of inequality. Afterward, the nation looked ready to have a grown-up conversation.
Unfortunately, we eschewed the opportunity for societal self-examination, retreating instead to the nonsense typical of recent campaigns. Even worse, Obama’s historic election made us feel as if we had transcended our deepest national failings and had no place left to go.
Recent unemployment figures make it clear that we do.
Before delving into the numbers, let’s recap events since March 2008. Several behemoths of American finance crumbled. Aftershocks from their greedy missteps left the economy tattered.
Lending froze, spending stalled and unemployment ticked upward from 5.1 percent to a high of 10 percent late last year.
African-Americans constitute a disproportionate number of those job losses. At the start of the recession in December 2007, 8 percent of blacks were unemployed. Now that rate is 15.8 percent – down slightly since January but still as high as it’s been since the early 1980s.
The figure climbs to 25 percent when you include the underemployed, those who’ve stopped looking for work or involuntarily settled for part-time jobs.
By comparison, the unemployment rate for whites currently hovers around 8.8 percent, jumping 4.4 points since the recession began, while 14.5 percent of whites are underemployed.
Parse the numbers and the situation looks even worse. Joblessness for 16- to-24-year-old black men reached Depression-era levels – 34.5 percent – last fall, according to Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies. The rate for young black women isn’t much better, 26.5 percent, about 11 points higher than for their white peers.
Controlling for higher education doesn’t eliminate the disparity: College-educated blacks are twice as likely to be unemployed as college-educated whites. Reversing this cycle will be a struggle.
Research by University of Massachusetts sociologist Don Tomaskovic-Devey suggests that black men spend more time looking for work and experience less job security than whites with equivalent skills. Furthermore, a 2004 Harvard study found that resumes with white-sounding names such as Emily and Greg received 50 percent more callbacks than similar resumes with African-American sounding names such as Jamal or Lakisha.
Whenever gains have been made, they’ve quickly been reversed. For example, the 2001 recession and subsequent jobless recovery erased a decade of tightening in the black/white earnings gap.
In 2005, the median black household income was 60.2 percent of the median white household’s, down from 63.5 percent in ’01 and almost a percentage point less than in ’95.
That gulf could grow even wider in the coming years since the downturn hit well-paid black manufacturing and construction workers particularly hard. Black autoworkers alone suffered a 13.9 percent decline in employment in the recession’s first year. Many of those jobs, once bright spots in a gloomy labor landscape for black men without college degrees, are gone for good.
This spells disaster for the children of unemployed parents, as research shows they’re more likely to fail in school, become homeless, experience abuse and suffer poverty as adults, according to the Brookings Institute.
It’s much easier to congratulate ourselves for our progress than to honestly discuss just how bad things remain. After all, blacks really have made tremendous gains.
A nod to the White House hushes any chatter about inequality, and affirmative action seems like a relic of our tumultuous racial history.
The president apparently agrees with that assessment. Although he formed a $150 million grant program last year that aims to create green jobs in disadvantaged areas, he’s been entirely unwilling to emphasize the plight of one group over any other, despite the persistent and glaring disparities that exist.
Part of me can’t blame the guy. Some 30 percent of Republicans already believe he is a “racist who hates all white people,” according to a February Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll. Any attempts to target black unemployment will surely fan the flames of racially tinged innuendo already engulfing the White House.
Nevertheless, we must hold the president to the vow he made two years ago in Philadelphia “to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”
He should start by regaining the candor he employed in the so-called Race Speech, then work with congressional Democrats to ensure that any upcoming jobs bill includes beefed up efforts to boost black employment.
Ryan Wilk of Bedford is a 2009 Penn State graduate with a journalism degree and an occasional columnist and sports stringer for The Tribune-Democrat.