It’s interesting how some numbers don’t make the news. Friday’s announcement that unemployment in the U.S. had dropped to 9.5 percent was welcome, even if the gains turn out fragile or illusory. Most of the early news stories left out an even bigger number: black unemployment at 16.5 percent, black male unemployment a whopping 17.6 percent. Since the rules of journalism require that the most important information come first, the overall national figures deserve first billing. In a lot of newsrooms, the crisis of joblessness among black Americans is no longer news. It drops to the bottom, or, when time and space run out, out of the story completely.
The banality of despair is part of the American tradition. Having nearly one of five men unemployed in certain communities is devastating but hardly newsworthy when recession is a permanent state. Poverty is nothing new in American. At one point or the other, various groups have endured the role of being at the bottom of the economic ladder: the Chinese, the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews. Each wave has played through the pain, to borrow a phrase from sports. And for the most part, each group of newcomers has, over time, advanced to the better life that America offered.
African-Americans are undoubtedly a special case; most have been here longer than everyone but the Native Americans and the Mayflower blue-bloods (who, incidentally, created full employment by importing slaves from Africa). In the 45 years since black Americans won “full” citizenship through the Civil Rights Acts, a significant number have benefitted from their new rights. Behaving very much like recent immigrants, they have climbed the social ladder. They have prospered, become educated, moved to better neighborhoods and sent their children to good schools. African-Americans have made significant advances in American society. They have become CEOs, heads of federal departments, mayors and Congressmen, senior officials in foundations, school principals, bankers, journalists, entertainers, professional athletes, academics, civil servants and small business owners. And there’s even President Obama.
The routine of black life in American has plenty of successes today, a significant change from just 50 years ago, when black Americans could not eat, sleep, live and work in large parts of America. Just recently we ran a story about a black investment group that rescued the Iridium satellite phone company from extinction and sold it at a healthy profit. The CEO of Xerox is a black woman and that is almost routine, now that there have been a half-dozen black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Neither has been found terribly newsworthy either. These stories have become routine, too.
But a large segment of the black population has simply been hit harder than everyone else. That’s indisputable fact. There are a number of reasons. Many of the cities where black Americans are concentrated are in the Rust Belt; St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Baltimore. The jobs in the steel mills of Gary, Indiana and the auto plants of Flint,Michigan that made possible the American Dream for millions of blacks and whites in the 1950s and 60s are gone. They went South to union-free plants and to Brazil, or east to Indonesia, China and other places where wages are in the single digits per hour. African-Americans are also concentrated in service jobs, a vulnerable sector that shrinks rapidly in recession.
The latest U.S. Census estimates report that black median family income was just over $41,000 in 2008, the lowest in the U.S. of any racial group. A single black woman with children earned a median annual income of $25,958 in 2008, according to the Census estimates. No surprise then, s that one out of five black families lives in poverty. More than 40 percent of black families headed by a single mom are poor.
Does the U.S. government have an obligation to create special programs to address the severe afflictions in the African-American community? This essentially political question has been the same for about a half century. But it acquires new tension in the age of Obama. What makes the answer more complicated is the fact that the President of the United States is black. Barack Obama may have transcended race in achieving the White House, but he also knows that transcendence is fragile and quickly exhausted and that a certain segment of Americans look for signs that he favors one group of Americans (blacks) over another.
Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy raised the issue of making a special effort last fall with Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, an expert on black unemployment. “Obama can’t just talk about blacks when all groups are experiencing incredible jobless rates and suffering,” Wilson told Milloy. “I believe he’ll get around to addressing racial disparities in the long term, but in the short term he’s got to talk about a stimulus package that increases unemployment benefits and reduces joblessness across the board.”
Milloy wrote: “Still, as Wilson knows well, black people are affected far more adversely by these soaring rates of unemployment. So does Obama. So do all Americans. With mid-term elections looming, the President has begun to talk about creating jobs. He knows that he will be punished by the electorate for high unemployment, even if it’s not his fault nor as bad as it would have been without his stimulus bill.”
But the willingness to focus on the most blighted segment of America is directly proportional to how much Americans really believe that black Americans are somehow to blame for their own high unemployment. After all, in the new “post-racial” era nary a word is heard about affirmative action or reparations. We’re back to an ahistorical narrative of America; everyone has bootstraps; it’s up to you to pull yourself up. Government plays no role, or at best a minimal one.
So far, all indications are that the President will continue to focus on the “big picture.” That will get him re-elected. Addressing black unemployment is a lose-lose when even the most dire conditions don’t even make the headlines. So numbers like 16.5 percent and 17.6 percent will stay at the bottom of the news story, and, all too often, get crowded out completely by more important events.