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Is Obama Failing the African-American Community on Economic Issues?

Barack Obama might not ever say that we live in a post-racial society, but his election was heralded by many as the beginning of an American era not bedeviled by historical racial disparities. When asked last year about race-based affirmative action programs, Obama suggested that class might be as, if not more, important a factor than race. His policies on a range of issues from college affordability to the recently announced anti-obesity initiative showcase his commitment to working on issues of importance to the African-American community without framing them as specifically “black” issues. But when it comes to the economy, recent data suggest that just focusing on class might not be enough to lift many African-Americans out of poverty.

Dr. Boyce Watkins at theGrio lists some of the disheartening statistics about the disproportionate effect the recession has had on African-Americans.

In January 2009, black unemployment was 72 percent higher than white unemployment (7.8 percent to 13.4 percent) according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In January 2010, that difference has risen to 80 percent (9.6 percent to 17.3 percent). The white unemployment rate rose by 1.8 percent during 2009, while the black unemployment rate rose by more than twice as much, 3.9 percent. While we know that black men have it worse than black women when it comes to employment levels, black female unemployment grew by more than four times that of white women (4 percent to .9 percent). All the while, black men are sitting on an unemployment rate of 19.5 percent, a 3.7 percent rise since the start of the year…Black teen unemployment is 80 percent higher than that of white teens (43.5 percent to 24.1 percent), presenting another serious long-term problem.

The stimulus package was meant to target groups — like construction workers, who are predominately male — who were disproportionately affected by the economic downturn. And yet African-American workers continue to lose their jobs and remain jobless at a disproportionate rate.

Titania Kumeh at Mother Jones knows why: The stimulus isn’t helping African-Americans in part because it isn’t helping the urban poor. She cites a new report by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity that shows that because the stimulus wasn’t targeted at African-Americans and didn’t address some of the unique barriers faced by African-American communities, it simply isn’t working as effectively for African-Americans as it is for the rest of the country. Worse yet, because the stimulus monitoring system isn’t designed to track outcomes by gender or race, there’s virtually no way for the government to notice, except in retrospect as it examines unemployment data broken down by race.

What does this say for the rest of Obama’s initiatives? It indicates that leaving race out of the conversation or the solutions will do little more than make the issues more palatable to those who oppose affirmative action. It also shows that the roots of economic disparity might well differ based on race, and might require different solutions based on race — or else the historical status quos, like African-American unemployment being stuck above 10 percent, will remain.

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