There was an invisible man at last week’s Republican National Convention, but tonight in President Obama’s acceptance speech there’s likely to be an invisible topic: black and brown unemployment. Communities of color are mired in an economic depression. Yet the president struggles to publicly acknowledge it. The choice not to do so presents Obama with a political problem when he can least afford it.
The worry is that Obama has an “enthusiasm gap” amongst key elements of his 2008 electoral base. As D.C. political guru Charlie Cook notes, it’s especially large among Latinos. The bottom line is that in order to remain in the White House, the president needs to give this community a reason to show up at the polls. The number one issue for Latinos, like all Americans, is jobs and the economy.
The dispiritive impact of President Obama’s silence on black and brown joblessness burst into full view almost exactly a year ago, in a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus. In that September 2011 talk, Obama responded to the CBC’s push for race-specific action on unemployment by telling its members to “stop complaining.” The ensuing rift cost the president precious time and support as he prepared for reelection.
The irony is that Obama has real plans that if implemented would turn the economic calamity in black and brown America around. The trouble is he seemingly can’t bring himself to rhetorically and explicitly link his policies to the people that would most benefit from them.
A Full-Blown Crisis
Black and Latino employment is an unmitigated disaster. More than one out of seven African Americans is without work. One out of ten Latinos is jobless.
When stacked up against white unemployment, the contrast is even more jarring. The African-American unemployment rate is 100 percent higher than that of whites. Latino unemployment is 40 percent greater.
The situation amongst youth of color is even worse. One out of three young African Americans is out of work, and more than one in five young Latinos is unemployed. In certain cities across America, almost 50 percent of youth of color can’t find a job.
Overall joblessness compounds the historic loss of wealth amongst blacks and Latinos due to the recession. Loss of houses and property, fueled by the foreclosure crisis, has sent black and brown net worth to all time lows. In fact, it’s now the lowest ever recorded.
The lack of jobs and other financial resources make it that much harder for these communities to get back on their feet. A generation will easily pass before blacks and Latinos regain what’s been lost in the last five years.
And why are these numbers so stark in our communities?
Black and brown unemployment is higher because it has different structural roots than the problem of unemployment as a whole. African Americans and Latinos are employed disproportionately in construction and other forms of hourly labor. These types of jobs were decimated by the downturn more than other forms of employment.
Additionally, Blacks are more likely to have jobs as teachers, police and fireman in the public sector. Since Obama took office, the economy has lost 600,000 jobs in the public sector. These government cutbacks have sent public sector payrolls into a free fall and black unemployment through the roof. Research from Berkeley’s Center for Labor and Research shows that “the public sector is the single most important source of employment for African Americans.”
For blacks and Latinos, the recession is nothing short of an economic Armageddon.
Obama’s Idea to End It
As black and brown unemployment has specific causal factors, it has to be resolved in a specific way. Fortunately, President Obama’s jobs bill introduced last year does just that.
At the heart of the president’s plan is to: 1) put millions of construction workers back to work by rebuilding the nations’s infrastructure and 2) direct aid to the states to rehire hundreds of thousands of teachers. Three out of four jobs lost in the public sector have been in education.
The president’s proposals would have a dramatic and substantial impact on unemployment in communities of color, so much so that it would go a long way towards getting our entire economy back on track. With it, we’d be adding three times the number of jobs per month than is currently the case.
The great mystery is why Obama refuses to talk about his jobs initiative in this way. Why won’t the president let the words, “I have a plan to end historic levels of black and Latino joblessness,” leave his mouth?
As Ta-Nehisi Coates details in The Atlantic magazine, “Obama [has] talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961.” He` goes on to say that the president’s inability to talk about race blunts his capacity to say “anything meaningful about present issues tinged by race.” This clearly includes black and brown unemployment.
Whatever the reason, as a result of his self-imposed silence, the president denies himself a potent political weapon in a tough political year. Obama’s got to get pivotal parts of his base to the polls. In order to do this, he’s got to show that he’s made contact on the most important issue to them in way that is relevant. That issue is jobs.
There’s also a broader civic point here: presidential words matter. They are a mobilizing force in the nation’s politics. Americans can’t solve problems that they don’t publicly acknowledge. This is an essential concept that any successful president grasps.
The fact that Obama has chosen not to use those words—which are a power endemic to his office and which he, himself, can so skillfully create—to address the needs of communities that so desperately need them is agonizing.