New job numbers released last Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics included some welcome news. The national unemployment rate dropped to a two-year low of 8.8% in March, with an increase of 216,000 non-farm payroll jobs.
President Obama is rightly touting the numbers as a sign of further, albeit slow, improvement in the economy. But the numbers also highlight a problem that could thwart a full and lasting recovery and impact the President’s legacy as he begins his campaign for a second term.
Unemployment among African Americans actually increased in March as compared with February numbers, and remains staggeringly high at 15.5%. Unemployment for black men in particular is higher still, at 17.7%.
While black unemployment was even higher at this time last year—16.5% overall and 20.2% for men—the racial gap in employment has stubbornly persisted. As the chart below indicates, black unemployment has been roughly double white unemployment since the start of the recession.
As the nation struggles toward economic recovery, knocking down the uniquely steep and unequal barriers facing African American families and communities is in the interest of all Americans, and our nation as a whole. States like Maryland (29.4% black), Louisiana (30.2% black) and Georgia (30.5% black), cannot achieve a prosperous future without investment in greater and more equal opportunity for all. Indeed, with the 2010 census showing Texas joining California, Hawaii, and New Mexico as states with “majority-minority” populations, an equal opportunity mandate has never been more important to our national success.
From the start of his presidency, Mr. Obama has been ambivalent at best in addressing this challenge. At an April 29, 2009 press conference marking the President’s first 100 days in office, Black Entertainment Television reporter Andre Showell asked Mr. Obama a poignant question about the already harsh economic challenges facing Americans of color. “As the entire nation tries to climb out of this deep recession,” Showell noted, “in communities of color, the circumstances are far worse. The black unemployment rate, as you know, is in the double digits….My question to you tonight is, given this unique and desperate circumstance, what specific policies can you point to that will target these communities and what’s the timetable for us to see tangible results?”
The President’s response signaled the conflicted approach to protecting equal opportunity that has characterized much of his presidency: “Well, keep in mind,” Mr. Obama explained, “that every step we’re taking is designed to help all people. But, folks who are most vulnerable are most likely to be helped because they need the most help.” He explained, “my general approach is that if the economy is strong, that will lift all boats as long as it is also supported by, for example, strategies around college affordability and job training, tax cuts for working families as opposed to the wealthiest that level the playing field and ensure bottom-up economic growth. And I’m confident that that will help the African-American community live out the American dream at the same time that it’s helping communities all across the country.”
Mr. Obama has since made good on some of those commitments (such as increased college support), while giving ground on others (most notably Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest). But the basic premise of his argument has been disproven by the facts. As I wrote at the time he made his statement, “unfortunately, it’s just not true that fixing the economy [and] aiding poor communities will necessarily close the racial opportunity gap.” Two years later, the gradually rising economic tide is utterly failing to close the employment gap, or to enable acceptable rates of employment amongst African Americans. That failure, in turn, casts a shadow over the nation’s overall recovery.
To be sure, Mr. Obama has made some important strides on equal opportunity over the last two years, especially compared with his immediate predecessor. He has rejuvenated the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department with new resources and dynamic leadership. And he has made clear to federal agencies that they must follow equal opportunity rules when administering federal programs like the Recovery Act.
But the magnitude of the opportunity crisis facing the nation warrants going beyond defensive civil rights protections and investing proactively in greater and more equal opportunity. Some of the recommendations that I made two years ago, such as targeting job training, debt counseling, and business opportunities toward communities that have been cut off from opportunity, remain viable today. Others, like the National Urban League’s proposal to create Green Empowerment Zones in areas where at least 50% of the population has an unemployment rate that is higher than the state average, also hold great promise. And the federal Surface Transportation bill expected in the coming months presents an opportunity to create jobs in struggling communities while connecting isolated neighborhoods to educational, health care, and other resources.
These are just a few specific and pragmatic actions that the President can take—some with, and some independently of, Congress—to pursue a full economic recovery that includes all Americans. But first, he must decide that addressing the disparate challenges facing different communities is part of being the president of all the people. It would be deeply unfortunate if, through inattention, this president’s legacy included the perpetuation of unequal opportunity.