Today, President Barack Obama delivered a speech about economic inequality at an event hosted by the progressive policy research institution Center for American Progress, which itself released three reports on the widening problem this morning. For Obama, his overall point was to show that the vaguely-defined "opportunity gap" in America is "now as much about class as it is about race." But Obama did take a few moments to recognize the role of racism in keeping many people of color in poverty to begin with — a rare admission from the president. Early in his speech, he noted that "racial discrimination locked millions out of opportunity." But later in his speech, when outlining "myths" that exist about why so many Americans are poor and what the government can or can’t do about it, he topped the list with this nugget:
First, there is the myth that this [poverty] is a problem restricted to a small share of predominantly minority poor — that this isn’t a broad-based problem, this is a black problem, or a Hispanic problem, or a Native American problem. Now, it’s true that the painful legacy of discrimination means that African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans are far more likely to suffer from a lack of opportunity — higher unemployment, higher poverty rates. It’s also true that women still make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. So we’re going to need strong application of antidiscrimination laws. We’re going to need immigration reform that grows the economy and takes people out of the shadows. We’re going to need targeted initiatives to close those gaps.
"Targeted initiatives" — conservatives will have a field day with that one. Meanwhile, such race-based initiatives to mitigate centuries of racial discrimination is what many people of color have called for from Obama since he took office in 2008. He’s also earned plenty of criticism for not doing more to champion policies that target black and Latino communities.
Obama’s endorsement of targeted initiatives may, for many, be five years too late and, billions of dollars short (actually, he didn’t put a dollar amount on them), but there’s some comfort in the fact he publicly supported them at all. It’s an uneasy comfort, though, given the vague and limited reference he made to race-focused solutions — one paragraph out of a five-page transcript. Other parts of the speech added to the discomfort by refusing to acknowledge precisley how racism caused much of America’s poverty problems.
This part of his speech was particularly nauseating:
"During the post-World War II years, the economic ground felt stable and secure for most Americans. … But starting in the late ’70s, this social compact began to unravel. Technology made it easier for companies to do more with less, eliminating certain job occupations. … As values of community broke down and competitive pressure increased, businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage."
The post-World War II years may have felt stable and secure for white Americans, but the same certainly can’t be said for African Americans who during that time were kept out of many New Deal benefits, lived under the continued threat of lynchings and were pushed into ghettoes formed in large part by the federal government. As ProPublica’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, who’s reported extensively on unfair governmental housing policies, recently told This American Life:
"So in the early to mid ’30s, the federal government realized that home ownership was going to be a major way to build and fortify the middle class. So the Roosevelt administration starts to back loans. And so you only had to put down 20%. And this is when the practice of redlining actually began. The federal government was the one who introduced redlining. … And what ultimately happens, of course, between 1934 and 1964, 98% of the home loans that are insured by the federal government go to white Americans, building up the white middle class by allowing them to get home ownership. And black Americans are largely left out of that process. And, if there’s one thing that’s amazing about all of this, is how efficient the federal government was in creating segregation."
Near the end of Obama’s speech, he emphasized this point: "The decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups, poor and middle class, inner city and rural folks, men and women and Americans of all races."
But clearly some races were hurt more than others. If targeted initiatives that address legacy racial discrimination are in fact coming, it will be interesting to see what shape they take. Given the impossibly stubborn gridlock of Congress, they would have to come from the White House, which would be great for Obama’s legacy and, more importantly, for the people they would help. How the white electorate responds will be far more interesting, especially as the 2014 mid-term elections approach.