by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Your Black World
Writer Trymaine Lee recently spoke on President Obama’s economic policies, particularly as they relate to the African American community. Lee does a very good job of comparing the statements of President Obama on black unemployment to those of Presidents Carter and Reagan, who also faced historic unemployment during their regimes. I am not sure why Lee left the Bush presidents off the table, but I suspect it is because they ran the nation when the economic situation was not nearly as dire.
Lee seems to argue that both Reagan and Carter differed from President Obama in that they were not afraid to address black people directly or advocate for targeted economic policy to urban centers or people of color. However, when President Obama has been confronted with the unique challenges facing black America, a “rising tide will lift all boats” metaphor was used. In his metaphor, President Obama was effectively arguing that if he helped everyone, that would automatically help the African American community.
When the issue of high black unemployment was brought to President Carter by a journalist, he responded in the following way:
We have built on direct programs that would help people in the cities who are poor. We have cut down the unemployment rate, as you know, about 1.5 or almost 2 percent this past year. But we’ve also tried to triple purchasing from minority-owned businesses. We’ve put into the laws that were passed last year — the Congress did — a mandatory requirement that 10 percent of the contracts be allotted to minority-owned businesses. We’ve exceeded those goals.
We’ve tried to increase, and have succeeded again, in increasing the deposit of federal funds in black-owned banks, up to more than $100 million now. And we’ve exceeded our goal again.
We plan on setting up an urban bank, which would give loans in special areas. We’ve advocated to the Congress under this program that tax incentives for employing difficult people to hire be rewarded and also prescribe investment credits on taxation for people who invest in the rundown urban centers. So, I think the cohesion of the whole program, the fact that it was built from the ground up, that it modifies existing programs, it puts a lot of money in, and is targeted, are all new factors.”
He went on to say this:
I think it’s obvious that when you reduce the unemployment rate overall in the country, then the special government programs that are designed to help the private sector can be focused more and more specifically on those who are the first to be fired and the last to be hired in the private sector, which is quite often the minority citizens. So, I think although we have made some progress so far, we have still got a long way to go. And with the lower unemployment rate now, we can focus our attention much more on the black citizens, particularly young black citizens who are heavily affected adversely.
President Reagan spoke on black teen unemployment when addressing his opposition to the minimum wage:
Now, the President spoke a moment ago about — that I was against the minimum wage. I wish he could have been with me when I sat with a group of teenagers who were black and who were telling me about their unemployment problems, and that it was the minimum wage that had done away with the jobs that they once could get. And indeed, every time it has increased, you will find there is an increase in minority unemployment among young people. And therefore I have been in favor of a separate minimum for them … With regard to the great progress that has been made with this government spending, the rate of black unemployment in Detroit, Michigan, is 56 percent.
He also said this to the NAACP during a speech in 1981:
Can the black teenager who faces a staggering unemployment rate feel that government policies are a success? Can the black wage earner who sees more and more of his take-home pay shrinking because of government taxes feel satisfied? Can black parents say, despite a massive influx of federal aid, that educational standards in our schools have improved appreciably? Can the women I saw on television recently — whose family had been on welfare for three generations and who feared that her children might be the fourth — can she believe that current government policies will save her children from such a fate?
We ask these tough questions, because we share your concerns about the future of the black community. We ask these questions, because the blacks of America should not be patronized as just one more voting bloc to be wooed and won. You are individuals, as we all are. Some have special needs. I don’t think the federal government has met those needs.
I’ve been listening to the specific needs of many people — blacks, farmers, refugees, union members, women, small business men and women, and other groups — they’re commonly referred to as special-interest groups. Well, in reality they’re all members of the interest group that I spoke of the day I took the oath of office. They are the people of America. And I’m pleased to serve that special-interest group.
The well-being of blacks, like the well-being of every other American, is linked directly to the health of the economy. For example, industries in which blacks had made sufficient gains in employment — substantial gains, like autos and steel — have been particularly hard hit. And “last hired, first fired” is a familiar refrain to too many black workers. And I don’t need to tell this group what inflation has done to those who can least afford it. A declining economy is a poisonous gas that claims its first victims in poor neighborhoods, before floating out into the community at large.
Therefore, in our national debate over budget and tax proposals, we shall not concede the moral high ground to the proponents of those policies that are responsible in the first place for our economic mess — a mess which has injured all Americans. We will not concede the moral high ground to those who show more concern for federal programs than they do for what really determines the income and financial health of blacks — the nation’s economy.
Now, I know you’ve been told that my proposal for economic recovery is designed to discriminate against all who are economically deprived. Now, those who say that could be confused by the misstatements that have been made by some who are either ignorant of the facts or those who are practicing, for political reasons, pure demagoguery.
Rebuilding America’s economy is an absolute moral imperative if we’re to avoid splitting this society in two with class against class. I do not intend to let America drift further toward economic segregation. We must change the economic direction of this country to bring more blacks into the mainstream, and we must do it now.
It appears that while Carter and Reagan were willing to confront the issue of race head-on, President Obama has either chosen to or been forced to dance around the sidelines. When he was asked about chronic unemployment in the African American community, President Obama had this to say:
Well, keep in mind that every step we’re taking is designed to help all people. But folks who are most vulnerable are most likely to be helped because they need the most help. So when we passed the Recovery Act, for example, and we put in place provisions that would extend unemployment insurance or allow you to keep your health insurance, even if you’ve lost your job, that probably disproportionately impacted those communities that had lost their jobs.And unfortunately, the African-American community and Latino community are probably overrepresented in those ranks. When we put in place additional dollars for community health centers to ensure that people are still getting the help that they need, or we expand health insurance to millions more children through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, again, those probably disproportionately impact African-American and Latino families simply because they’re the ones who are most vulnerable. They’ve got higher rates of uninsured in their communities.
President Obama used his “rising tides” argument in another interview with April Ryan:
So my general approach is that if the economy is strong, that will lift all boats, as long as it is also supported by, for example, strategies around college affordability and job training, tax cuts for working families as opposed to the wealthiest that level the playing field and ensure bottom-up economic growth. And I’m confident that that will help the African-American community live out the American Dream at the same time that it’s helping communities all across the country. Okay?
What appears to have happened during the Obama presidency is that the racism of our nation, as well as the Obama Administration’s fear of confronting that racism, has led to us having a black president who might very likely be politically impotent when it comes to producing tangible results for the African American community. This doesn’t mean that Obama doesn’t want to help black people in his heart, but the black community may have been forced to trade imagery and skin color for meaningful and relevant political advocacy. Being a man who seeks compromise and approval from those who hate him, President Obama is hardly the kind of black leader who will challenge the hate that exists in America or advocate righteously for people of color who don’t spend the summer at Martha’s Vineyard or get their law degrees at Harvard University.
All the while, there are those of us who become increasingly concerned that we may decide to throw away our first black president simply because he has been so directly impacted by the dysfunction of American politics. The symbolism of the Obama presidency has inspired millions of people, and even those whose lives are not made any better by the name or face of the president are proud to see a black man on TV representing the nation that has oppressed our people.
Black America is in a sticky political situation. In spite of the appearance that Ronald Reagan may have cared more for the plight of the urban poor, the truth is that his policies harmed black people for decades. Jimmy Carter, in all of his righteousness, is considered to have been one of the most ineffective presidents in American history. One must respect Carter for doing what is right, but that might be why Carter’s presidency only lasted four years. At the same time, it’s hard to argue that eight years of mediocrity is something to be excited about.
Do I know the absolute answer to these questions? No, I do not -the answer depends on the value systems of those assessing the issue. But does the failure of the Obama Administration to address black unemployment mean that every African American must simply show up to the polls and support the best option available? I don’t think so. Whether one supports President Obama or not, the undeniable truth is that our community must find more effective ways to deal with its problems and we may have to let go of the idea that supporting Obama (or not) is going to make a drastic difference in our day-to-day lives.
When it’s all said and done, the only thing that will liberate black folks is to find a way off of our economic and political plantations. Whether one gets the chance to be a house negro or field negro, the truth is that you are still a slave. So, being inside or outside of our nation’s corrupt and ineffective political system is not nearly as fruitful as committing ourselves to building an alternative set of independent realities.
As we celebrate the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, we might instead want to turn to the words of Malcolm X, who taught us that integration without independence is not much better than slavery. Our community will never be lifted by any politician.