The Awful Race Disparities That Still Haunt Us
Even though a black family lives in the White House, hardly anyone seriously argues that we live in a postracial society. That aspirational description of 21st century America came into vogue about four years ago, as President Barack Obama raced to victory in the 2008 presidential election, and a great number of black and white Americans wanted to believe the nation was finally closing the books on its discriminatory history.
But no. President Obama’s election didn’t suddenly sweep away all the accumulated consequences of past racism in our society. The preexisting racial disparities, so engrained in the fabric of our economy and culture, didn’t erase themselves in the wake of his victory.
As my Progress 2050 colleagues Christian E. Weller, Julie Ajinkya, and Jane Farrell make regrettably clear in their recently released report, “The State of Communities of Color in the U.S. Economy: Still Feeling the Pain Three Years Into Recovery,” racial and ethnic minority groups aren’t living in a paradise free of racial disadvantage. Quite the contrary, their research demonstrates that people of color aren’t benefiting apace with white Americans as our nation gradually rebounds from the financial collapse and economic recession that gripped us all when President Obama took office:
[T]he data we summarize in this report shows that communities of color are substantially less likely than their white fellow citizens to enjoy the opportunities that come from having a good job, owning a home, and having a financial safety cushion in the form of health insurance, retirement benefits, and private savings. This difference exists because economic opportunities eroded faster for communities of color than for whites during the Great Recession—and those opportunities have been coming back much more slowly for communities of color than for whites during the economic recovery.
The disparities Weller, Ajinkya, and Farrell write about aren't new. Anyone who’s paid scant attention to the drumbeat of sour economic news knows that white unemployment, while at near-record heights, never drew within spitting distance of the chronically high rates suffered by African Americans and Latinos. As a result of this one fact, my colleagues write, a host of other calamities followed for people of color during the economic downturn like toppling dominoes, including:
-- Black Americans enjoying fewer job opportunities than all other racial and ethnic groups.
-- Poverty rates, already higher for communities of color, rising faster in the recession and declining slower during recovery than for white Americans
-- Homeownership, a major source of financial security, disappearing faster for black Americans during the recession and recovery than for white Americans
Those are old, bitter, and racially disparate facts. But what is especially galling is the yawning silence and indifference that seems to accompany the periodic recitation of them. Worse, there exists in some conservative quarters a refusal to acknowledge the truth and an eagerness to embrace discredited notions about postracialism. Acting as if racial disparities don’t exist or believing we’re now living in some fantasy world free of racial divisions is nothing more than an excuse to preserve the status quo. It serves to protect the advantages of those who are already employed and comfortable, while keeping racial and ethnic minorities locked out of the improving economy.
But despite the cloudy pessimism disclosed in the report, there also exists the opportunity for hopeful change. More than a catalogue of racial disparities, the report provides a roadmap for policies that, if implemented, would help equalize the burdens faced by people of color. Specifically, it suggests federal policies that would accelerate job creation, shore up unemployment insurance, raise the minimum wage, increase access to health insurance, and implement comprehensive immigration reform to protect workers’ rights.
Armed with the facts of disparity and a prescription for change, policymakers have no excuse for inaction. Reporting the bad news, as Weller, Ajinkya, and Farrell have done, removes the blinders from their eyes. Policymakers’ indifference to the pain of their fellow citizens can only be interpreted as willing refusal to ensure that all Americans—including communities of color—share equitably in the rebuilding and recovery of the nation’s economy.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center's Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.