Black America’s economic freefall

January 8, 2010

The economic crisis is wracking Black communities--and political leaders, including Barack Obama, are failing to respond.

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 jobs.

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 range.

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 figures show.

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.

Waiting in line for a job fair

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 country.

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.

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 communities.

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 Black unemployment.

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 worse.

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.

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 explained:

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.

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 election.

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, among others--burns.

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 being devastated.

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 get better.

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