Obama, Black America and the Jobs Crisis

The president's record on the economy, especially black unemployment and poverty, has been mixed.

President Obama giving an economy speech last month in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

President Obama’s biggest policy victory on behalf of blacks remains — once it’s fully implemented in 2015 — the Affordable Care Act, which will offer millions of uninsured citizens the opportunity to have health care for the first time. The stimulus package, especially in its ability to save states from laying off police, firefighters and teachers, also greatly benefited African Americans. 

Despite the successful passing of the biggest piece of domestic social legislation since the Great Society, President Obama’s record on the economy, especially black unemployment and poverty, has been mixed.

Record Wall Street profits exist alongside soaring black poverty rates, heartbreaking violence in major cities such as Chicago and a black unemployment rate topping 12 percent, which would be a national crisis if that same figure applied to whites (which stands at 6.6 percent). 

The Obama administration’s failure to nationalize the banks at the root of the mortgage crisis has meant that, unlike Wall Street and the auto industry, millions of American homeowners failed to receive a bailout (including $300 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program funds that might have served as a second stimulus), an unconscionable oversight that has further dragged the economy.

Perhaps Obama’s biggest recent mistake on the economy was his failure to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of 2012. Had he done so, the president would have commanded the leverage to craft the “grand bargain” that has eluded him with this Republican Congress and prevented the annual looming budget crisis. Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare continue to be a political obsession among party activists and elected officials who vow to “starve” the new health care law of the funds required for implementation. 

President Obama’s efforts to focus on the economy should be applauded. And his remarks that economic misery can foster increasing racial tensions are historically accurate. In two instances this past month Obama has “gone rogue,” candidly speaking his mind about race (in the case of Trayvon Martin) and class (discussing how the 1963 March on Washington was about jobs and racial justice). He needs to do this more often.

But his acknowledgment of the burgeoning gap between the 1 percent and the rest of America does not go far enough. The revival of a nation in which more than 46 million people live below the poverty line and millions more belong to the working poor requires bold and imaginative legislative proposals. For blacks, who are disproportionately poor, the most effective legislation would require a mix of universal (health care) and targeted (jobs, education) legislation that could provide not only equal opportunity but also equal outcomes, which, in the final analysis, will be the true measure of Obama’s impact on black America.

A half century after the March on Washington, America needs bold and imaginative legislation to jump-start the tepid growth of the American economy, including a much-needed jobs and reinvestment plan in urban cities that house some of the nation’s poorest, and largely black, neighborhoods.

 Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and  invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.