Black Jobs Crisis: Could GOP Do Better?

A recent negative jobs report for African Americans could provide an opening for Republicans. 

Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Barack Obama (Jim Watson/Getty Images)
Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Barack Obama (Jim Watson/Getty Images)

(The Root) — After five years of nonstop bad news regarding black unemployment,  the Obama administration was finally able to celebrate some good news last month, or so it seemed. In July African-American unemployment dipped to 12.6 percent, a small but significant change from June’s 13.7 percent unemployment rate — and substantially lower than the high of 16.5 percent that it reached in January 2010.

But any celebration was likely short-lived. While the national unemployment rate decreased slightly in August, to 7.3 percent, reaching a five-year low, that same month, African-American unemployment rose to 13 percent.

So at this point, who exactly is to blame for the seemingly unshakable epidemic of unemployment in the black community? Bob Woodson, a black conservative, generated headlines for his fiery speech at a Republican National Committee luncheon commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. During his address he argued that when it comes to policy and progress, all other demographic groups have taken precedence over poor African Americans. Woodson said, “Everybody has come in front of them on the bus — gays, immigrants, women, environmentalists. You never hear any talk about the conditions confronting poor blacks and poor people in general.”

Though his language may have been more pointed, Woodson merely gave voice to a criticism levied specifically at the Obama administration by many black Americans — namely that in the quest for re-election, President Barack Obama and his allies focused less on achieving solid policy deliverables to those demographics already most likely to vote for him and instead focused on delivering for those groups who needed more convincing.

Reinforcing the notion that the president prioritized the needs of other communities before those of the community that supported him the most in both elections are his own words. In a 2009 interview with reporter April Ryan, when asked about the criticism that black Americans — particularly unemployed ones — were being forgotten by the first black president, Obama replied, “So, we have made a series of steps that make a huge difference. The only thing I cannot do is, you know, by law I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks. I’m the president of the entire United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That, in turn, is going to help lift up the African-American community.” This response was puzzling when considered against the many measures he eventually executed exclusively on behalf of another group of people: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

As I have previously written, although LGBT Americans could easily cite administration accomplishments, such as repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” ordering the Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and appointing more openly gay elected officials than any other president, black Americans could not cite such a list.

Gay Americans found the most devoted LGBT-rights advocate the Oval Office has ever known, and immigrants also found an ally in the White House who was committed to immigration reform, an issue of particular importance to the Latino community. Yet black Americans have long looked a lot like an afterthought.

But does that mean Republicans could do any better?

History paints a mixed picture. According to an analysis in Forbes, when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1980, black unemployment hovered at 14.5 percent. (Perhaps as a nod to these poor numbers, Reagan received double-digit support from black voters.) But black voters did not fare much better under the Reagan presidency. Black unemployment stood at 14.3 percent when he faced re-election in 1984, although that number was an improvement over the nearly 20 percent of African Americans who were unemployed at one point in Reagan’s first term.