The health care debate commands the front-pages of the nation’s daily newspapers and serves as the lead story for television and radio news reports, while a disaster of cataclysmic proportion is unfolding in the Black community – permanent joblessness. In the wake of the nation’s worst economic crisis in 70 years, what is evading the attention of most journalists and lawmakers is the development of a permanent class of jobless among Black Americans, particularly among Black men and young Black adults. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report, widely hailed for its showing of a loss of only 247,000 jobs in the month of July, is being touted by many, including the Obama administration, as a sign that the worse of the recession has occurred and the nation is on the road to recovery.
While those numbers do represent a dramatic improvement over previous months’ reports, what they do not tell is the story of the hundreds of thousands of Blacks who are unemployed over an extended period and who have no prospects for a job in the foreseeable future, causing many to drop out of the labor market completely. The official unemployment figures released every month by the Department of Labor masks those individuals and does not provide an accurate picture of the reality on the ground for many Blacks. Still, even with its shortcomings, the government data does present enough of a negative picture of Blacks in relation to the nation’s economy that should prompt lawmakers to act. In the latest figures released Black unemployment stood at 14.5 percent but once you look behind that figure you begin to understand the depth of the jobless crisis for Black Americans.
The official unemployment rate for Black men is 15.8 percent, the highest among any adult category according to BLS data. By comparison, white male unemployment is 9.1 percent. The extent to which Black men have been left behind is alarming and causes a ripple effect in a number of areas, including rates of incarceration, family stability, marriage rates, health indices and community preservation. With so many Black men unable to support themselves, and thereby their partners/spouses and offspring, it is easy to see why neighborhoods begin to deteriorate as family units are unable to overcome financial difficulties and children fall prey to negative influences. A simply trip through any urban center in the nation – Detroit, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Newark or Cleveland to name a few – and the impact of the loss of functional Black men is evident. It is not hard to imagine what the response would be if the same conditions were prevalent among white males. The rate for Black teenagers, age 16 to 19, is 35.7 percent, as compared to white teenagers at 22.2 percent. The figures for teenagers is important because in many instances Black teenagers’ wages are important to bolster the household and are not simply extra spending cash for teens. Black women, with an unemployment rate of 11.7 percent, are faring better in this recession but also shoulder a disproportionate burden for family care in the absence of working Black men. The status of Black men also affects personal relationships and makes family formation and marriage more difficult propositions due to economic insecurities.
What is as startling as the raw data is the absence of any visible outrage over what is occurring in the Black community. While enraged citizens show up at community forums on health care to shout down Members of Congress, there has not even been the hint of anger over the joblessness crisis pummeling Black Americans. In quarters of the Black community where one would expect there to be a vocal critique of economic conditions impacting Blacks, there has been little public engagement. While some it could be attributed to the media’s indifference to the plight of Black Americans, there also seems to be little effort from an institutional basis to coalesce around an economic agenda that is focused on workforce training, career pathways and skill remediation. For example, for all the programmatic efforts focused in community economic development on the part of Black churches, there appears to be few sustained, large-scale initiatives aimed solely at the issue of job generation and employment. The nation’s civil rights community has also been slow to raise the temperature in public debates on the issue of Black joblessness and, as a result, have been unsuccessful in engaging the Obama administration on what is perhaps the foremost issue impacting the community while policy makers are engaged in determining the allocation of resources to confront the recession.
There is one dynamic that is likely playing into the degree to which Blacks have remained tempered in their response to the economic crisis: the presence of a Black President. This is where the politics of having the nation’s first Black President challenges the Black community in ways that it has not been confronted in the past. There is such concern that any criticism of President Obama will fuel his opponents, critics believed by many Blacks to be racist in their views of the President, that there may be a conscious decision to suppress legitimate criticism. The danger for Blacks is that by not being vocal concerning the economic crisis at hand, there is no pressure on the administration to look specifically at the joblessness crisis in the Black community. While it is not a situation of this administration’s making, the White House may only respond when there appears to be a growing and vocal contingent of Black voices forcing a discussion of economic inequities.
The most troubling aspect of the current quiet over Black joblessness is that the worst is likely yet to come. What may occur is a sort of delayed outrage as the economy begins to recover and it becomes apparent that it does not include Blacks. It is one thing to be without work when your situation is mirrored across the country but if it appears that others are moving back into the workforce, and you have no prospects, resentment will likely replace patience and that is when sheer desperation may provoke the most extreme of reactions.