With health care reform complete, President Obama faces a menu of issues competing for his attention. The Senate is struggling to craft new regulations for banks. Immigration rights advocates want the White House to deliver a better deal for the undocumented. House Democrats are pushing for more transparent oversight of America's intelligence agencies. Environmentalists hope for substantive action on climate change.
And then there's the fact that roughly one in five black men in America is unemployed.
The link between color and employment is not new. Since at least the 1930s, black unemployment has run higher than white unemployment. But even as the economy creeps upward out of recession, the scale of the problem is breathtaking.
In February, black male unemployment stood at 19 percent—nearly twice as high as white male unemployment for that month (9.6 percent).The unemployment rate for black men is higher now than at any time since Sept. 1983, in the wake of the vicious 1981-1982 recession.
During that Reagan-era downturn, black male unemployment hit nearly 23 percent, worse than in recent months. But the government's official definition of unemployment excludes people who have stopped looking for work, which masks the severity of the current crisis. For black men aged 16-64, labor force participation—the percentage of people working or looking for work—is lower now than at any time since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking it for blacks in 1972. And the gap between black male and white male labor force participation has never been wider.
Black men are not alone in suffering. Fourteen percent of Latino men are unemployed, as well as 13.1 percent of black women and 12 percent of Latino women. Even white men's 9.6-percent rate is higher than white women's 7.8 percent unemployment. But black men have it worst; their presence among the unemployed is 77 percent higher than their share of the country's population.
In New York City, the crisis has blown craters in the black workforce. Some neighborhoods may have black male unemployment as high as 46 percent. The scars from joblessness at that scale persist for generations: higher poverty, less stable families, more hunger, more foreclosures, poorer school performance by children of displaced workers, shorter lives for those who lose their jobs. Black wealth, already stunningly disparate from that of whites, will fall as blacks who are getting by lend a hand to relatives who aren't.
Amid that pain, the President is under increasing pressure from black Congressional Democrats to target the next wave of economic assistance to the communities who've suffered most in the recession—communities of color. The Congressional Black Caucus has been calling for action for months. The NAACP, National Urban League and Rainbow/PUSH Coalition are also raising their voices.
But to date, the White House has refused to inject color into its depictions of the economic crisis. No surprise there: Obama's breaking the color barrier at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue hasn't given him free rein to conduct the "national conversation on race" of which he once spoke. Instead, pigment is a uniquely perilous topic for him. When he weighed in on the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. last summer, the media saw it as "divisive." His nomination of a "wise Latina" to the Supreme Court triggered a debate about whether it was OK for a jurist to describe herself as such. His spokesman has had to deny that people protesting against the president are motivated by race, lest the White House seem to be playing the "race card."
And race isn't the only sharp edge of the black male unemployment problem. Confronting black male joblessness probably requires doing something about the incarceration epidemic in America, which renders millions of nonviolent offenders—disproportionately black and male—less employable. The problem raises questions about whether globalization and technological change mean that the U.S. economy will henceforth produce significantly fewer jobs than it needs, and at wages that are too low, for black men and others. Discussing black male unemployment means treading through delicate territory around black culture and the impact of immigration on the labor market. And any comprehensive solution to the black unemployment problem will probably require a combination of aggressive spending on job training with ambitious government job creation – policies tailor-made to send fiscal hawks and Tea Party types to the barricades.
As the overall unemployment rate has eased in recent months, black male unemployment appears to have increased. And even when black unemployment subsides as economic growth picks up, the recovery's rising tide may only exacerbate the depth of the predicament faced by those who can't swim: black men who don't make it back to work, or even into the labor force, if they were ever there to begin with. The question is whether, as the recession fades and these inequalities of the labor market appear in even starker relief, anyone will still be watching.
The upcoming issue of City Limits magazine documents the crisis of black joblessness and the debate over whether—and how—to respond.