The first Black President likes to say that he is the President for all Americans, not just Black Americans. That refrain is usually followed up by an assertion that the policies he is pushing for, whether that be health care, financial regulation or tax relief, tend to help the Black community overall as much as any other group. Disregarding whether you agree or not with the characterization of the legislation that has been passed, this is essentially a modification on the “rising tides lifts all boats” argument. Now, as it is for economic policy, that’s terrific if all boats actually do rise, especially if they all rise substantially and relatively equally. Unfortunately, with Black unemployment at 15% (compared to white unemployment of 8%), this is not happening right now. We face a jobs crisis in our community, both immediately and long term given that extended unemployment tends to have lasting effects in the form of lower future job prospects and wages. And unfortunately, it is not being addressed in a forceful fashion by our elected “leaders.” In fact, the crisis is actually being made worse.
I understand all of the arguments that the POTUS trots out about not being able to govern in a bubble, that legislation doesn’t start with him in the Executive branch and the difficulties of overcoming a dysfunctional Congress and a rabidly oppositional Republican party. That’s all true and should be taken into account. Clearly, he had some sort of come to Jesus moment and started to advocate for jobs again in the last couple of months. But what should also be taken into account is that our beloved President has also essentially used his bully pulpit to advocate for policies which actually harm Black communities, and specifically Black employment.
As Mike Konczal states clearly in his discussion on President Obama’s economic performance:
The President’s powers are going to be held in check by Congress – with a dysfunctional Senate – and the Federal Reserve – where liberals haven’t been agitating for more hawkishness on unemployment. But with that said, it means that everything the President could do by himself is suddenly more important, especially when it comes to government spending. And the President actually did counterproductive things, things that signaled they were happy with a slow recovery
He goes on to question why Obama would advocate freezing government spending in early 2010 (actually it started before then), when it was clear that the economy was not on firm footing, to threaten to “enforce this discipline by veto,” and ultimately lead the charge in seeking Grand Bargains to effectively slash the federal government, all while state governments were also cutting jobs. Contrary to the common narrative, government employment has actually fallen under Obama (it grew under Bush in case you were wondering).
And who’s employed by these governments which are under attack from austerity. Well, that would be Black communities disproportionately. As the NY Times reports today:
About one in five black workers have public-sector jobs, and African-American workers are one-third more likely than white ones to be employed in the public sector.
I’m pretty familiar with this reality. My family is from Washington DC. My mom started her career at the National Institutes of Health. My sister works for the government. My uncles have as well. I have aunts who are teachers. They aren’t siphoning off money from the government, but are dependent on continued funding for them to do their jobs, which up until 2009, were actually considered valuable. Now instead, they have to wonder whether budget cuts will lead to them joining the ranks of the other 15+% of Black people that are unemployed.
Clearly then, as public sector jobs have been shed, this would mean that Black communities would also be affected disproportionately. The article continues:
Though the precise number of African-Americans who have lost public-sector jobs nationally since 2009 is unclear, observers say the current situation in Chicago is typical. There, nearly two-thirds of 212 city employees facing layoffs are black, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union.
So, with that backdrop, why would a Black President, who is supposedly very concerned about unemployment in our communities, advocate for the very thing (austerity) that would lead to increasing unemployment in our communities? That just does not hold up.
Back in the 1990s, when welfare was reformed, it was clear that there was a racial component to the desire to end the program, given that it was assumed that people of color (and really POC women) were benefitting from welfare programs. It was not always described that way, but the dog whistles were loud and clear. Now, a similar question should probably be asked. Does the current desire to cut government spending, and specifically government jobs, also have an unsavory racial undercurrent? While that would not be surprising at all given who the GOP largely serves as its constituents, what is perplexing is why the Democratic Party and their fearless leader, the first Black President, would follow them down that rabbit hole knowing what affect it has had, is having, and will have
At this point, my expectations have been lowered. I don’t expect any jobs creation programs or policies to emerge from Washington. All I ask for is, Primum, non nocere…”First Do No Harm.”