Posted on May 28, 2009

Barack Obama and Alarming Black Unemployment

Boyce Watkins, PhD, BlackVoices, May 26, 2009


{snip} The black unemployment numbers, while typically absurd, had reached (in TSA language) threat level orange. During the month of April, while white unemployment nation-wide rose by only .1% (to 8.0%), black unemployment rose by a shocking 1.7% (to 15%). This means that black unemployment grew by 17 times more than white unemployment and is nearly double the rate of white America. Yes, it’s time to be alarmed.

Unemployment has dropped in 21 states. {snip} Yet, black America is getting hammered relentlessly by the economic downturn. Not trying to bother you President Barack Obama (I know you’re kind of busy with that whole North Korea thing), but do you have anything to say about this?

President Obama has created a task force on the middle class. He has formed a task force for the automobile industry. His administration has issued bailouts left and right to banks, insurance companies and Wall Street executives. And although the black community does not represent the majority of President Obama’s constituency, one might argue that a task force on black unemployment could be worth the time it takes to sign a document.

Given the fact that black male unemployment in some urban areas is as high as 3-4 times the national average, President Obama would even be well-justified in forming a task force on the state of the black male in America. When black males are struggling, black families are struggling. As a black man himself, President Obama cannot forget that.


I believe in the president and I want him to succeed. I even challenged my respected brother Tavis Smiley when he spoke ill of Barack Obama last year. But Tavis is correct in the sense that accountability must always be present when evaluating our political leaders. We cannot fall asleep at the wheel and assume that our interests are going to be consistently represented by politicians who have no incentive to do so. {snip}

When America sees its unemployment levels rise to 8%, there is a panic and demand for government accountability. When there is a natural disaster, we expect to see Homeland Security in our state. When a major corporation fails, executives arrive hat-in-hand, asking for Congressional support. Some African Americans, on the other hand, see requests for government support to be a sign of weakness, while forgetting about the fact that we pay taxes too.

President Obama is likely a man who cares for people of color. I am even willing to try to make sense of his decision to allow for a significant cut in funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)–even though this fact has become disputed. The challenge is that we must remain mindful of the tradeoff between symbolism and true opportunity, as we enjoy the spoils of having a black president. Black unemployment of 15% should be enough to get our president’s attention, and it should be OK for him to actually acknowledge that the black community has a unique set of challenges. African Americans cannot continue to be the mistress that the president sneaks in the back door, for I am not sure of the last time I’ve heard the president use the words “black man” in public.

{snip} Black America must make its voice heard, and Obama must be the one to hear it.