Black Job Crisis: How Will Obama Handle It?

Job seekers in Chicago (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Job seekers in Chicago (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: black unemployment. See previous postings in this series here.


Background: The unemployment rate of black Americans has been an ongoing challenge for the black community, policymakers and presidents since the government began tracking unemployment data. The rate of unemployment among black men and women has been practically double the unemployment rate for white Americans since records started being kept on the subject in 1972. 

But the numbers have been particularly dismal in recent years. In 2007, when the latest recession began, unemployment among black Americans was 7.9 percent, compared with 4.2 percent for white Americans. In the years that have followed, the unemployment rate for black Americans has risen faster than the rate for white Americans or Latinos.

First-term accomplishments: In January 2009, the month President Obama took office, the unemployment rate for black Americans was 12.7 percent, compared with 7.1 percent for whites. By August 2011, the government's own data confirmed that the unemployment rate for black Americans had reached its highest levels since 1984: 16.7 percent. It has since fallen but was still at 14 percent in December 2012.

In an interview with The Root, then-Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) had this to say about the rate of unemployment among black Americans during our first black president's first term: "Look, as the chair of the Black Caucus, I've got to tell you, we are always hesitant to criticize the president. With 14 percent [black] unemployment [pdf], if we had a white president, we'd be marching around the White House."

Second-term hopes: Finding a viable policy solution to address unemployment rates in the black community has stymied most presidents, but the issue is proving particularly vexing for the first black president. In part, this is likely because many black Americans have higher expectations for him on issues affecting the black community, and few issues are affecting the community as deeply as unemployment.

But many issues underlying the black unemployment crisis involve the political landmine of race, a landmine that has proved perilous for the president in addressing in the past. Now that the president has been safely re-elected, many are hoping that his administration will be less wary of potential landmines.


For instance, a Princeton study published in 2007 found that race still plays a prominent role in hiring decisions made by white small-business owners, to the detriment of black applicants. Yet revisiting the role of affirmative action in hiring has not been publicy explored at length by the Obama administration, despite its weighing in on an upcoming Supreme Court case involving affirmative action in higher education. (Read more on how Obama will tackle affirmative action on The Root tomorrow.)

However, the Obama administration introduced a groundbreaking program to provide tax breaks for businesses that hire veterans to help address staggering unemployment rates for men and women who have served in the military. Mayor Michael Nutter praised a similar program in Philadelphia for helping to increase employment for another underemployed population: former felons. Mayor Nutter called the program "one of the best crime-prevention programs we'll ever have," indicating that employment can lower recidivism rates among former prisoners.


So what does this have to do with black unemployment? According to the NAACP, "One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime." In the city of San Francisco, the unemployment rate of former felons was between 25 percent and 30 percent. For this reason, a local elected official there introduced a measure similar to the one championed by Nutter in Philadelphia: to provide tax breaks to businesses willing to hire someone who has been released from prison.

The fact that such measures have gained traction in major cities affirms that there are viable solutions. The question is whether or not the Obama administration is willing to take the risk of trying such out-of-the-box thinking. If it doesn't, it is possible that the first black president's administration may be forever remembered, not for hurting the plight of black Americans but, rather, for not doing much to help them economically. 


Tell us what you would like to see President Obama do concerning the black job crisis during his second term, using the comment box below.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter