Posted: 01/18/2013 10:46 am EST | Updated: 01/18/2013 10:49 am EST
WASHINGTON — Less than a month after President Barack Obama won his second term, the National Urban League summoned Bernard Anderson to a meeting in the capital.
The invitation was no surprise. Anderson is giant: an economist and prominent author, the first African American granted tenure at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor and chair of the National Urban League’s Council of Economic Advisers.
The real surprise was the meeting agenda: not to celebrate Obama’s historic victory, but to develop a strategy forcing him to pay more attention to Black America.
Anderson was one of more than 40 civil rights, social justice, health care, business and community development leaders in attendance. And at that Dec. 3 gathering just across Lafayette Square from the White House, no single issue occupied more time or generated more discussion than Anderson’s report on the fragile economic status of black Americans.
“What happened in that room is indicative of what so many of us, including the president and I know his wife, have known and felt for some time,” Anderson told The Huffington Post. “It would not bother me if he never made another speech before the Urban League or the NAACP. What he needs to do is use his office, the bully pulpit and actual policy to address the persistence of racial inequality in economic life. If he does that, then I think his presidency will be redeemed.”
That redemption may be a long time in coming. The White House declined to make available an official to speak on the record about a specific new agenda — or lack of one — to deal with life in Black America. On background, a senior White House official cited support for measures such as extended unemployment insurance and new financial regulations, but suggested that political and budget constraints makesweeping new initiatives unlikely.
The Black America that views Obama as its president, that helped to make him America’s president, has a list of critical concerns and priorities — many of which are shared with the nation’s fast-growing Latino population. Together, these are the people who are struggling hardest to make ends meet, whose grasp on a stable middle-class life remains the most tenuous and to whom the economic recovery has been the least kind.
Obama’s presence in the White House, path-breaking and historic as it is, hardly means that race no longer matters in America, these experts say. Ironically, his ascendance may have promoted the palliative idea that the wounds of racial inequality have been healed, when some matters have actually grown worse.
Even a cursory list reveals troubling facts: Blacks and Latinos disproportionatelyattend subpar schools, are taught by the least-qualified teachers, face sky-high incarceration rates and suffer from low levels of health care coverage.
“Voting, health care and criminal justice were all on the agenda,” said Anderson, about the summit. “But the disparities in income, employment and wealth are so pervasive, so long-standing that there were people in that room who rarely write the word ‘economics’ raising their hands.”
Without a doubt, the problem predates Obama.
For 34 of the last 39 years, annual average black unemployment, a measure of those actively looking for work but unable to find it, has sat at or above 11 percent, according to federal data. And black wealth — the cash and other assets that families have to see them through a crisis after accounting for their debt — dropped a collective 53 percent between 2000 and 2007.
But the Great Recession has brought more trouble.
The foreclosure crisis (along with a 14 percent black unemployment rate) has helped to push a disproportionate number of black homeowners out of their neighborhoods and out of the middle class. By 2010, a full 35 percent of black homeowners — and 41 percent of Latino homeowners — reported they were underwater, meaning they owed banks or mortgage lenders more than their homes were worth, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Just 18 percent of whites said they were in the same situation.
Even more troubling, over 25 percent of black Americans were living in poverty as of 2011 — 10.9 million people, up slightly from 10.7 million the year before, according to the most recent Census data.
Algernon Austin, a labor sociologist and researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, said these problems have been exacerbated by the failure of policymakers to accept that inequalities in the education system and the labor market continue to exist. The perpetuation of stereotypes, such as the notion that black Americans are somehow more prone to crime and therefore should be investigated and surveilled more frequently, have produced disproportionate levels of incarceration in black communities and rendered a large share of the black male population unable to qualify for affordable housing or federal college aid or to find work due to criminal convictions, Austin said.
“What’s happened for too long is that people see the criminal offending and say that’s bad culture, bad behavior, and therefore Black America’s economic problems are really a cultural problem,” said Austin. “I am saying if we really want to address poverty, inequality and related problems, then the place to start is jobs.”
For Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans, the implication is clear: Black America played a critical role in helping to reelect Obama. Now that the worst of the nation’s financial crisis is over, there are social and political obligations that must be met. They exist not because Obama shares a phenotype or genetic heritage with Black America, but because Black America is American, he said.
“A coalition of women, young voters and people of color — blacks, Latinos and Asians — put this man back in office,” said Morial. “We were with him in the sense that the first term was about putting out fires and addressing emergencies. We understand the legislative climate. We know what the stimulus did and how hard he had to fight for that. But four years later, so much of the recovery has bypassed people of color and middle-class America that we are not going to let the counsel of cynics dissuade us or stop us from making demands and getting some tangible, sustainable progress. The silent tiger is going to roar and roar and roar.”
As the nation’s first black president, Obama must solve a complicated political calculus, said Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners, a political strategy firm that was deeply involved in Obama’s campaigns.
He cannot appear to favor black America, nor can he appear completely disconnected from it, Belcher said. He cannot appear weak, but must also avoid embodying stereotypes such as the angry or dangerous black man. And on the rare occasions that Obama has hinted at or explicitly expressed the way that race continues to shape experience in America, he has had to steady himself against withering charges of racism, communism and worse, Belcher said.
“There has to be a maturity about how politics works,” said Belcher. “There’s no doubt that the president is constrained in some ways. However, as an interest group, should leaders of black organizations make the case for what their communities need? Absolutely. If they don’t, who will?”
Even if the country and the second Obama administration still clings to a “rising tide lifts all boats” approach to policy, Black America’s economic situation has grown so dire, along with that of the Latino population, that any policy that fails to target these groups’ challenges will likely fail to resolve the nation’s biggest problems, Austin said.
For instance, the administration’s willingness to limit cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients will have a far greater impact on black and Latino senior citizens, boosting poverty. After a lifetime of what are often lower wages, higher-cost borrowing and a limited ability to save, 26 percent of black seniors and 25 percent of Latino seniors depend on Social Security for 100 percent of their income, compared to about 14 percent of white retirees, a December 2012 Economic Policy Institute analysis found.
“We simply have to start having more sophisticated policy conversations,” said Austin, “even if they make some of us uncomfortable.”
A White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the Obama administration is deeply concerned about Black America’s economic condition. The official touted the fact that the administration used billions of dollars in stimulus funds to save or create an estimated 682,000 jobs, the vast majority of which were in local, state or federal government agencies — the single largest employer of black men and the second most common for black women.
The White House also pointed out that the administration has cracked down on employers that use discriminatory hiring practices and on banks that engage in discriminatory lending. The Justice Department has funded programs that seek to reduce the number of people who return to prison, worked to trim sentencing disparities, and defended the rights of blacks and Latinos to participate fully in the political process. And the administration’s crowning achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is expected to help millions of black Americans gain health insurance.
“I think we have at least tried to push forward legislation that would support and address the economic needs of the African-American community,” the White House official said. “Realistically, as a country, we are in a place where we can’t afford everything we want, and a lot of stuff that we have been trying to push through Congress has been stonewalled.”
The White House did not offer much in the way of specific policies the administration is planning to help Black America in the second term, choosing instead to highlight big-ticket items like rebuilding the economy, expanding domestic manufacturing, pursuing immigration reform and developing the green energy industry.
“An economy that continues to improve is going to benefit everyone, African Americans included,” the staffer said. “That’s not just a catch phrase. That’s true. Are we where we want to be? No. Are things getting better for most Americans? Yes.”
The question, though, is not about the “most” but the “rest.” That’s why Anderson and others like him came to Washington in December, and why they will be watching the second term so closely.
This article is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read other posts in the series, click here.