Does a rising tide lift all boats, as President Obama once said? The economy is improving, and that’s a good thing, right? It depends on who you’re asking. While the economy is moving ahead, blacks are being left behind.
50 years since the march from Selma to Montgomery, we are reminded that institutional racism, racial disparities in wages and wealth, and discrimination based on color are still a harsh reality of American life. And we have a long way to go.
The latest jobs figures released by the Labor Department for February were positive, even better than expected, with 295,000 workers added last month. The official unemployment rate — which is artificially low, failing to account for people who are not actively looking for a job, the underemployed, and all those college graduates flipping burgers – dropped to 5.5 percent, down from 5.7 percent in January and the lowest since the middle of 2008. However, wages were sluggish, rising a mere 0.1 percent.
For blacks, the economic picture is quite different. While the unemployment rate for whites was 4.7 percent, it was 10.4 percent for blacks, 6.6 percent for Latinos, and 4.0 percent for Asians. Traditionally, in fact, for the past six decades, black unemployment has remained double that of whites. This racial gap tends to be higher in the Midwest and the South.
The president has argued that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and that his policy reforms would disproportionately benefit African-Americans. Perhaps that would be the case if everyone owned a boat. And black folks could use as much as a life raft, because many have found themselves underwater and sinking.
The disparities are glaring, bleak and sobering. Although we are told that education is the key to success, black college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed as other graduates, while African-American college students are about as likely to be hired as white high school dropouts. Even worse, white convicts have about the same chances of getting a job as blacks without any criminal record. Meanwhile, a black woman make 64 cents for every dollar a white man earns, and a black man makes 72 cents. White women earn 77 cents for each dollar white men make.
Part of the problem is that black workers tend to be the first fired when the economy tanks. In addition, they have suffered more than others from the shrinking of government jobs, as African-Americans benefited from government as the employer of last resort, when the private sector would not hire them.
Further, job discrimination continues to plague black people. Everyone has heard of the employer bias against people with black-sounding names. And hiring managers are more likely to believe black applicants are drug users. In addition, African-Americans face jobless discrimination in cases where hiring managers weed out unemployed candidates, given that black workers are unemployed at twice the rate of white workers. As a result, blacks find themselves over-represented in low-wage jobs rather than in higher-paying professional positions.
Meanwhile, during the Great Recession, black and Latino families experienced an immense loss of wealth of Biblical proportions. This was due to the collapse of the unregulated housing market, when people of color were targeted for predatory lending and mortgages they could not afford. According to the Urban Institute, black families lost 31 percent of their wealth between 2007 and 2010. Hispanic families lost a staggering 44 percent of their wealth, and whites lost 11 percent.
Looking at the racialization of the poverty gap brings the problem more sharply into focus, as the wealth gap has widened along racial lines. Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately poor, with over 1 in 4 blacks living in poverty, and fewer than 1 in 10 whites. The typical African-American family has less than a tenth ($6,446) of a white household ($91,405), and that racial wealth gap has tripled over the past 25 years — due to lower home ownership and lower incomes among blacks, making it more difficult to build wealth.
In America, all women and men are created equal, or so we are told. But that does not mean they are treated as such. Black people are behind, not because we are lazy or fail to work hard or pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. Systemic racism and economic inequality remain at crisis levels in the U.S., and that is the heart of the problem. And the problem is only getting worse, so bad that it caused Thomas Chatterton Williams to ask recently in the New York Times why more blacks have not left the country in search of greener pastures.
Perhaps Martin Luther King, who fought for economic justice, jobs and an end to poverty said it best. “The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold: We must create full employment, or we must create incomes,” Dr. King said. “People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted.”
He added: “New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available… Work of this sort could be enormously increased, and we are likely to find that the problem of housing, education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”
A full half century has passed since civil rights protesters marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, sustaining brutal police beatings, whippings and teargas in the search for racial justice. Justice still has not come, and if we have learned anything, we know that the situation will not improve unless we struggle to make it so.