(The Root) — The latest jobs numbers brought some good news not only for the Obama administration but also for the black community. After steadily rising since April of this year, African-American unemployment finally decreased in July from 13.7 percent to 12.6 percent. While that is still nearly double the number of unemployed in the general population, it’s the lowest it has been since President Obama took office, when the rate of unemployed black Americans was also 12.6 percent.
While the president secured his policy legacy in U.S. presidential history with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, how history will ultimately judge his accomplishments on behalf of black America has become a growing issue of concern. Black unemployment has seen some of its highest levels during the first black president’s first term, reaching 16.5 percent in January 2010.
In an interview with The Root, which was later cited on the program Meet the Press during a discussion of the president’s economic record, former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said of the dismal black unemployment numbers that plagued the president’s first term: “With 14 percent [black] unemployment [pdf], if we had a white president we’d be marching around the White House.”
But Cleaver also said that because of the fierce opposition that President Obama faced — some of it racially motivated — many African Americans tried to refrain from being overly critical of his policy approach to issues affecting the black community, including black unemployment. That patience has begun to dissipate somewhat, since he successfully secured a second term. Even still, the role of race has loomed large as the Obama administration and policy leaders have sought solutions to unemployment in the black community.
In an interview with The Root, Democratic Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor said that he believed a solution like the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule” could be instrumental in addressing black unemployment. Such a rule, which requires that a black candidate be considered for any NFL head coaching jobs, essentially is a variation on affirmative action. But the senator gently acknowledged that it could be challenging for an African-American president to press such a measure, particularly in such a charged political climate.
Yet race has continued to play a role in who receives interviews, and ultimately jobs, even in the age of a black president. A 2012 study found that students with ethnic-sounding names received less attention and response from their professors than students with names perceived to sound white, and more specifically white and male. The authors of the study hypothesized that such bias boded even more poorly for the workplace. After all, a professor is being paid to respond to your inquiries. A job recruiter is not. This study seems to confirm previous studies indicating that candidates with so-called black-sounding names on résumés are less likely to be invited for an interview than candidates with supposedly race- or ethnicity-neutral names.
In comparing the economic recovery of the rest of the country with the ongoing struggles of communities of color, the Economic Policy Institute concluded, “African Americans have essentially been living through a perpetual, slow-moving recession.” It is clear that 12.6 percent unemployment in the black community does not signal the end of the “perpetual, slow-moving recession,” but it is a number that indicates progress. The Obama administration should be commended.
But it will have to do much more to be applauded. After all, 12.6 percent is not a number worthy of celebration, but it is worthy of a sigh of relief.