Will Obama Address Black Unemployment in the State of the Union?

As House Republicans fixate on dismantling health care reform, President Obama is readying his counter-offensive for Tuesday’s State of the Union address—pushing the jobs issue back to the forefront.

“My number one focus is going to be making sure that we are competitive, that we are growing, and we are creating jobs not just now but well into the future,” Obama said in a video emailed over the weekend to members of his grassroots group, Organizing for America. “And that's what is going to be the main topic of the State of the Union."


Enjoying a recent spike in approval ratings after his reassuring speech on the Tucson shootings, the president will likely get kudos for zeroing in on the subject that concerns voters the most. But some liberal advocacy groups, such as the Center for American Progress and the National Urban League, are wishing he would further sharpen his focus on the communities of color hardest hit.

It has been a while since Obama’s even mentioned racial differences in economic security—the 15.8 percent black unemployment rate, for example, compared to 8.5 percent for whites. And with the disparities having stayed the same, or gotten worse, during the recovery effort, the silence is deafening.


A new report by the Center for American Progress details how minorities have struggled disproportionately through the recession, noting that 74.7 percent of whites, but just 45 percent of African Americans, are homeowners. The study, and a recent “12-point blueprint for urban jobs” by the National Urban League, both recommend that the White House adopt policies that specifically target communities of color.

It’s a well-worn debate by now, in which the president has maintained that his first priority is achieving broad economic growth. By lifting the entire economy, as the talking point goes, he’s helping the African-American community as well. But two years later…isn’t it time for a new spin on that?

“That stance is not enough,” argues Christian E. Weller, a co-writer of the Center for American Progress report. “If we just focus on average growth it will take a lot longer for communities of color to get back to where they were before the recession, and that wasn’t a good situation to begin with.”

Though Weller applauds Recovery Act provisions that actually have targeted low-income communities, such as the 2009 summer job program for disadvantaged youth and job training grants for adults on public assistance, he says that the White House needs to get a handle on long-term structural issues. “We’re essentially looking at a bad decade for communities of color—these are not problems that just popped up in the recession.”


So, will any of this come up during tomorrow’s job-focused State of the Union address?

“I doubt it,” says Weller.

Yeah, it’s unlikely. But, having had a couple of years to put more thought into the matter, here’s hoping Obama will at least have a more elaborate plan to truly lift up all communities.


Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.

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