[StBernard] Obama's Presidency Has Been A Disaster For Blacks

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Wed Jul 13 22:40:18 EDT 2011

Obama's Presidency Has Been A Disaster For Blacks

Walter Russell Mead, The American Interest

Walter Russell Mead is the James Clark Chase Professor of Foreign Affairs
and Humanities at Bard College and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest.

The election of the first African-American president was widely hailed as a
giant step forward for American racial politics.

The future, however, may remember this administration as a giant step back
for Black America during a period of deepening alienation, anger, and
despair in America's inner cities.

Not since the 1960s, when scores of American cities were shaken by one race
riot after another, have African Americans faced such deadly conditions:
high expectations and hopes running up against a reality of vanishing jobs,
shrinking government budgets, and a fractured and fragmented leadership.
Barring an unlikely change in economic fortunes, we could soon face a new
period of explosive anger and even violence; alternatively, the urban poor
could fall prey to a new kind of passive despair and anomie as hope dies on
one inner city street after another.

Either way, the mainstream press's slowly fading intoxication with the Obama
administration has led it to miss the dimensions of the new urban crisis now
stalking the United States.

The liberal Reagan, they swooned back in the good old days. No-the new FDR!
No, wait! The new Lincoln!

But as the rosy glow surrounding the administration and all its works slowly
dies away, many Americans will be taken aback at the urban crisis that
quietly and unostentatiously took shape while the fatuously exhilarated
press choirs sang about the hope and the change that was coming our way.

The 21st century urban crisis has five main features: the devastating impact
of what for most blacks is a still-deepening recession; the unfolding
effects of the fiscal crisis meshed with the decline of the blue social
model; competition for jobs, resources and power between African Americans
and mostly spanish-speaking immigrants; the increased fragmentation and
disintegration of black political leadership; and the contrast between the
high hopes of 2008 and the grim realities that have come clear since.

"Devastating" is an overused word when it comes to unemployment and the
inner city, but the Department of Labor's latest report (Black Employment in
the Recovery) tells an eye-popping story of failure and decline.

There is some good news in the report: one quarter of employed African
Americans have a college degree, reflecting steady progress over recent
decades, and college-educated blacks earn more and have lower rates of
unemployment than do their less well-credentialed counterparts. While women
earn less than men (and more than 50 percent of the African Americans who
have jobs are women), black women and men both earn substantially more than

That is about it for good news (though readers with a Hispanic background
may not consider the news about blacks out-earning Hispanics to be
particularly "good").

Now for the bad. Blacks are more likely to be unemployed than whites (16
percent black unemployment rate vs. 8.7 percent for whites), they stay
unemployed for longer when they lose their jobs, and they are more likely to
be unemployed for the long term.

The states where unemployment rates for African Americans are relatively low
are states where not many African Americans live: Alaska (5.4 percent Black
unemployment), Wyoming (6.2 percent), Idaho (8.0 percent), Hawaii (9.6
percent), and (at 10.3 percent) New Hampshire. Except for Hawaii, all are
generally conservative, low-tax states. The states with the highest
unemployment rates for African Americans are staunchly blue: Wisconsin (25
percent), Michigan (23.9 percent), Minnesota (22 percent), Maine (21.4
percent), and Washington (21.4 percent).

The administration-produced Department of Labor report does its best to
accentuate the positive, but it is clear that when it comes to employment,
the Obama administration has been a total bust for blacks.

Buried deep in the report, for example, we find the mumbled admission that
black unemployment continued to rise in both 2009 and 2010 in finance,
transportation, and construction. Far from basking in even a feeble
recovery, African-Americans have endured two years of rising unemployment
since the Obama inauguration.

The second horseman of the urban Armageddon is the collapse of state and
local government spending. Blacks are over-represented in public sector
employment: According to the Department of Labor, almost 20 percent of
employed blacks work in government (compared to less than 15 percent for
whites and 11 percent for Hispanics). The public sector is the leading
employer of black men and the second largest employer of black women. With
layoffs and cutbacks slashing state payrolls from Maine to California and
growing numbers of city and county governments facing financial meltdowns of
their own, the outlook for these workers is not good.

Government payrolls have actually been shrinking in recent months, as the
2009 stimulus comes to an end and states around the country cut their
budgets. Some workers will lose their jobs, and others will pay more for
health and retirement benefits; the worst-hit will be young workers and
recent college grads whose paths into middle class public sector employment
will be blocked. All levels of government will be hiring at a slower pace
for the next few years; that is going to have a disproportionately negative
effect on the job prospects of young African Americans.

As government resources dry up, competition between different groups for
what remains will intensify. Tension between African Americans and
Hispanics is already high in some cities. There is nothing pathological
about this tension or peculiar to the two groups: American cities have been
battlegrounds of ethnic politics for 150 years. But fights over shrinking
pies are nastier than fights over growing ones. Whether Republicans or
Democrats control Washington and most state capitals in the coming years,
discretionary spending at all levels of government is almost certain to
shrink, leaving immigrants and urban blacks in a zero-sum scramble for
what's left.

Meanwhile, as many observers have pointed out, African American political
leadership today is divided and poorly equipped. This is partly for reasons
I discussed in my recent post on the decline of race; while many poor blacks
still live in a race-dominated world, talented and educated African
Americans have options today that their parents and grandparents lacked.
African American baseball players were once forced to play for the Negro
Leagues; when Major League Baseball opened the doors to black players, the
Negro Leagues lost their best talent-and their fan base. 1947 was the year
when Jackie Robinson broke the color bar in baseball; fifteen years later
both Negro Leagues were gone.

Something similar is happening to race-oriented civic groups and political
movements; black politicians who can break out of the "race market" get to
be governors, senators, and president; those who identify as "race
politicians" get to be aldermen or, at most, members of the House of

As University of Chicago Professor Michael C. Dawson (author of "Black
Visions" and the forthcoming "Not In Our Lifetimes") points out, this
generally means that these politicians must focus less on issues like racial
equality and urban poverty and address issues of more, ahem, "general"

This is the approach President Obama took as both a candidate and as
president. Candidate Obama talked more about the war in Iraq than about
Hurricane Katrina, and as President he has avoided any sense of special
advocacy for blacks.

The same phenomenon holds true across the professions. The wealthiest and
best educated fifth of the African American population enjoy six-figure
incomes and a range of employment opportunities more like those of high
income whites than like those of the inner city poor. Ideologically, many
African American leaders and elites steer shy of the world view of men like
the Reverend Jeremiah Wright or the socialist and identity politics of the
1960s and 1970s.

But it is not just a question of ideas. Now that more blacks have more
opportunities to succeed in the general economy, less of the top black
talent goes to work for specifically black organizations.

Beyond that, a chasm has opened up within black urban communities. As
graphically demonstrated by the massive cheating scandal in Atlanta,
teachers and school administrators have one set of priorities; parents have
another. The producers of government services such as they are have a vested
interest in getting as much money as possible from the government while
limiting their accountability to the public. Parents want better schools;
teachers (some of them, anyway) want better contracts.

Given the organization, economic power, and numbers of public employees,
urban African-American politics cannot stray far from the demands of the
public unions for high pay, low medical costs, lifetime job tenure, early
retirement, and generous pensions. But the needs of the majority who don't
work for the government require black leaders to call for vast expansions of
government services.

It would be hard enough to meet the educational needs of inner city children
with flexible staffing and low overheads. Trying to meet those needs with
the inefficient management techniques, tenured deadwood, incompetent
administrators, and high fixed cost structure of, say, the Atlanta school
district would require astronomical sums.

Having to build a coalition between those who demand inefficient,
feather-bedded government and those who need government services more than
anybody else drives urban Black politics into a dead end. Frequently, black
politicians end up fighting to get more money for indefensibly poorly run
organizations; add the collusion and cozy backscratching traditional in
urban political machines to the mix, and black politicians lose the moral
authority and dignity that would make advocacy for the poor more effective.

Politicians who advocate for this conventional form of the black agenda end
up pigeonholed and sidelined in national politics, and low income, urban
blacks feel that the system will never make a serious effort to improve
their lives. "New Look" black politicians like President Obama ally with
liberal, good government whites and push specific black demands off to one
side; old style, ward heeling politicians voice the emotions and aspirations
of their constituents but are never able to deliver the schools, investment,
and health care their districts need.

Black America, never ideologically monolithic, is divided in complicated and
evolving ways, and many of the traditional civil rights organizations and
black community groups are less well-equipped to cope with this more
difficult community landscape. These problems are also reflected in the
state of the black media; the same trends making life difficult for legacy
print media are also present in the black media where some enterprises were
already economically vulnerable. At the same time, the pull of the general
media attracts many talented journalists and thinkers away from historically
black journals.

Beneath all this lies a deepening frustration on the street and a growing
alienation between low income, less-educated blacks and the well-integrated,
well-heeled and cosmopolitan elite.

The election of the first African American president was not just a triumph
for Black America; it also reflected a deepening crisis of black politics
and black leadership. Looking at the black community as a whole, we see that
the forces reshaping American life generally are also affecting African
Americans. The top quintile is doing pretty well and becoming an
increasingly cosmopolitan elite at home not only in white America but in the
world as a whole.

The bottom end of the income distribution faces much bleaker prospects with
declining income and disappearing opportunities for social mobility. The
middle class is stressed, divided between those on the public payroll and
those in the private sector, and many families face the loss of middle class
status and income as the recession grinds on.

Increasingly, following a pattern we see among whites in the United States
today, the educational, intellectual, and political elite among blacks is
out of touch with the realities, values, and emotions of the black lower and
middle class. The institutions that have traditionally helped to bridge that
divide (churches, historically Black colleges) are under stress and in some
cases have a lower caliber of leadership than in the past.

If we add to this the mounting frustration among many young and poor blacks
(and not only them) about the failure of "hope and change" to make their
lives better in any way, we have an explosive mix. Conditions are bad,
leadership struggles to rise to the times, hope has soured into disillusion.

It now looks increasingly likely that the recovery will continue to move
slowly everywhere and especially slowly for blacks. Out of frustration and
economic need, black politics will shift away from establishment liberalism
toward more left wing or black nationalist options, even as whites continue
moving toward the right. If that is where we are headed, then President
Obama's election will look to many angry young blacks less like a milestone
for Black America and more like proof that ordinary politics cannot change
their lives. The establishment leaders who urge them to keep calm and be
patient will not have their confidence or trust.

Worst case, some very hot times could loom not too far ahead.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.

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