During the presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama spoke eloquently about race in America and its continuing relevance to our national progress. But at the press conference marking his first 100 days, President Obama got it wrong.
Black Entertainment Television reporter Andre Showell asked the President:
“As the entire nation tries to climb out of this deep recession, in communities of color, the circumstances are far worse. The black unemployment rate, as you know, is in the double digits. And in New York City, for example, the black unemployment rate for men is near 50 percent. 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 was disappointing. After recounting a number of health care initiatives, he argued that “those probably disproportionately impact African-American and Latino families simply because they’re the ones who are most vulnerable.” He concluded, “so 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.”
Unfortunately, it’s just not true that fixing the economy aiding poor communities will necessarily close the racial opportunity gap. In 2000, after a decade of remarkable economic prosperity, the poverty rate among African Americans and Latinos taken together was still 2.6 times greater than that for white Americans. From 2001 to 2003, as the economy slowed, poverty rates for most communities of color increased more dramatically than they did for whites, widening the racial poverty gap. From 2004 to 2005, while the overall number of poor Americans declined by almost 1 million, to 37 million, poverty rates for most communities of color actually increased. In other words, contrary to the President’s assumption, reductions in poverty do not inevitably close racial poverty gaps, nor do they reach all ethnic communities equally.
Nor will increasing employment, alone, close racial gaps. In 2007, when the economy was still relatively strong, Latinos earned just 73 cents for every dollar earned by whites, and African Americans earned just 75 cents. Latina women earned just 59% of what all men earned. And, as I’ve written in this column before, the statistics on “wealth”—which economists describe as assets minus debt—are far worse: for every dollar of wealth held by whites, Americans of color held only 15 cents.
All of those numbers predate the current economic crisis. They show, among other things, that rising economic tides do not reliably lift all boats.
The president was wrong, but he was not completely wrong. Creating jobs, expanding health insurance, building community clinics, will indeed aid all Americans. And African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are, in fact, disproportionately unemployed and uninsured. But it will take more than that to ensure truly equal opportunity. It will require attacking predatory lending targeting communities of color. It will require addressing racial bias in employment and housing and in the criminal justice system. It will require investing specifically in abandoned and segregated inner-city schools. And it will require targeting job training and debt counseling, and business opportunities at communities that have been cut off from opportunity.
The thing is, President Obama is trying to do many of those things. He is investing in neglected schools, for example, and reinvigorating the nation’s anti-discrimination enforcement. But to be successful, he will also need to explain to the American people why those steps are necessary.