United States: Blacks still taking the hit

By Malik Miah

January 2010 -- Against The Current -- It took 10 months before the US Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) stood up and challenged President Barack Obama. In a surprise move, 10 CBC leaders refused to participate in a key House of Representatives financial committee vote in December 2010 until some more relief is provided to Black businesses.

Black politicians and civil rights leaders have been understandably careful about criticising the first Black president. Yet facts on the ground, especially the super high unemployment in the Black communities, forced their hand. While their challenge is mild, it is significant.

The impact of the Great Recession has been greatest on Blacks as well as on other ethnic minorities. Official unemployment is nearly 50% higher for African Americans than for whites. What’s most striking is that the Black middle class, including those with Ivy League educations, are having a hard time finding jobs.

The issue of “race” once again is becoming a hot topic in the Black community as qualified professionals and skilled workers with equal or better résumés than whites are being turned down for jobs — going instead to whites with lesser qualifications. It is a reminder of the pre-civil rights era.

At the same time, the gains of the civil rights revolution make it possible for Obama to be president and the Black elite to still hold some major jobs in big business. But there are clear signs of erosion.

One example reported in a front page story in The New York Times entitled, “In Job Hunt, even a college degree can’t close racist gap" (December 1, 2009), notes that many Blacks are altering their names to sound more “white” to get interviews.

A study published in the American Economic Review reports that applicants with Black-sounding names received 50% fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names.

Getting the interview, of course, doesn’t mean you will be accepted in a tight private sector job market where most interviewers are generally white. (Government jobs are different where enforcement of anti-discrimination policies is stronger and more minorities are employed.) Even if you can get into the door for an interview, it doesn’t mean the most qualified person gets the job. There is little talk about “reverse discrimination” in this environment with double-digit unemployment. For the most part affirmative action in hiring is non-existent.

One University of Chicago graduate applying for a business money management position in Dallas told the Times of how one hiring manager became excited while talking to him over the phone about how lucky the company was to hear from someone with a top business school education.

But once the company representatives met him and saw that he was Black, “Their eyes kind of hit the ceiling a bit. It was kind of quiet for 45 seconds.” The company’s interest in him quickly cooled.

A Yale University graduate commented, “It does weigh on you in the search because you’re wondering how much is race playing a factor in whether I’m even getting a first call or whether I’m even getting an in-person interview once they hear my voice and they know I’m probably African American?”

De facto discrimination lives

As the Dallas example shows, while it is illegal to discriminate, employers know how to avoid hiring Blacks without blatantly or overtly violating the law. Articles are now appearing in major papers and websites about white and Black professionals seeking identical jobs where the more qualified Blacks don’t even get return calls from recruiters. The old maxim “last hired, first fired” is not applicable since these qualified Blacks can’t even get in the door.

On top of this, the bailout of Wall Street provided few funds for small businesses. Loans and lines of credit are nearly impossible to find. This is doubly true for Black businesses — this is credit redlining.

Some 14 years ago the government began tracking the number of hungry Americans facing what it euphemistically calls “food insecurity”. Today the US Department of Agriculture calculates that there are some 49 million Americans — 26% of Black households, 14.6% of white — without enough food. Millions of adults only eat one meal per day and a record number of families rely on food stamps.

The oldest and most respected civil rights group, the NAACP, is now calling on President Obama to take firmer action on the jobs front and the economic recession’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans.

Other Black leaders are also criticising Obama’s decision to spend billions more for the war in Afghanistan (up to US$40 billion per year) while few dollars are going to help the poorest communities save their homes and get jobs. Obama never mentions the special problems facing Black working people.

Racial reality of joblessness

The data makes clear that race does matter when it comes to joblessness. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in November 2009 unemployment for whites was 9.3%, but 15.6% for Blacks. Overall the unemployment rate was 10% (much higher when those who have given up and the underemployed are added). Long-term unemployment (those persons jobless for 27 weeks or more) continues to increase. It is twice as high for African Americans.

A second statistic also shows the colour divide. Black men working at full-time jobs make $622 per week, which is 74.5% of the $835 median for white men.

The unemployment rate among men with college degrees in 2009 is 4.4% for whites, and 8.4% for Blacks. For those with high school diplomas, unemployment is 10% for white men, and 15.9% for Black men. For those with less than a high school degree, it is 13.9% for white and 24.2% for Black men.

The BLS statistics among women are similar — 4% for white women with a college degree compared to 6.9% for Black women. For those with a high-school diploma, 7.4% for white women, compared to 11.4% for Black women; and 13% for white women with less than a high-school degree compared to 18.3% for Black women.

The BLS statistics are raw data compiled from across the country. The fact that the racial gap is consistent for all social categories indicates that race and racism is structural in society. Accordingly, special measures (enforced by the federal government) are required to help African Americans overcome structural discrimination. These must include affirmative action programs and push back against employers who will find ways to interview but not hire African Americans.

Many Black elected officials in Washington are beginning to see that uncritical support to Obama is not a smart policy. Anger is growing in the Black community. Unemployed African Americans will not get jobs or be trained by “waiting” for the first president who happens to be Black to help them.

Civil rights leaders have been less forceful in these efforts, however, because of a reality that concerns them — the increase in right-wing and racist smears and threats against Obama.

Rise of hate groups

There has been a qualitative increase of hate mail and threats directed at President Obama since he took office. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) based in Alabama has reported on the significant rise of the militia movement that is infused with racist ideology. Its report, The Second Wave: Return of the Militias, cites the following evidence:

• Fifty new militia training groups, including one composed of current and former police officer and soldiers.

• The convening of so-called “citizen courts” and “grand juries” that have issued indictments against President Obama for treason and fraud.

• “Sovereign citizens” who subscribe to the ideology that whites have a higher citizenship status than others and do not have to pay taxes or obey other laws. They engage in “paper terrorism” such as filing bogus property liens against enemies.

• The introduction of states’ rights resolutions in the legislatures of about three dozen states. The governor of Texas has gone so far to talk about “secession”.

According to its founder Morris Dees, as of the end of 2008 the SPLC documented 926 hate groups in the United States — a record number and an increase of more than 50% since 2000.

While many of these rightist efforts and militias have existed in the past, what’s new is the reality of the first Black president. Coupled with their hostility to immigrants  — legal and undocumented — the smear campaigns of Fox News and the energised extreme right with its racist and other neo-fascist language, create a climate that enables blatant discrimination.

These elements were on vivid display at the well-organised intervention by the conservative base of the Republican Party at the town hall meetings on healthcare last summer. Many opponents of Obama brought weapons and displays of Nazi and racist images to intimidate officials and those with genuine concerns. On her book tour Sarah Palin’s demagogy, with her direct appeals to not-so-subtle white nationalism, “Obama is not like us”, could not be clearer.

Glenn Beck of Fox News summarised the views of the racist fringe and mainstream neoconservative movement when he said President Obama “has exposed himself over and over and over again as a guy who has a deep-seated hatred of white people or the white culture” (July 28, 2009).

What needs to happen?

The rise of overt racist talk, militia groups and more “confident” bigots attacking Obama requires a response. The response should be more than to simply protest the racism of the right. It must centre its demands on the government to act on issues of urgent need for society. This includes taking up traditional civil rights issues like jobs, affirmative action and healthcare for all. It means opposing Obama’s push for a deeper war in Afghanistan and toward implementing the Bush agenda abroad.

Ultimately the only way to reinforce civil rights laws, push again for affirmative action in employment and take on de facto discrimination in hiring requires public protests and action. The concern that the “Black” president cannot be openly criticised, since the racist right is after him, is a mistake.

The small steps taken by the Black caucus in Congress, the NAACP and others to demand a change are openings to do more. What’s needed are marches for jobs, healthcare, defence of women’s rights and other issues that were won by the civil rights and other social movements. Without public protests and counter-mobilisations, the airwaves and streets will continue to be dominated by the ultra right and the neoconservative forces.

There are many white working people sucked in by the energised anti-Obama, government-is-bad-at-everything campaign as symbolised by the Palin book signings and town hall protests. They still can be neutralised or even won over to the anti-racist and progressive side if a revitalised left movement emerges. White people’s social consciousness, along with the struggles of all working people in this country, rose in the 1960s when a minority Black community led the civil rights revolution that transformed the country.

[This article first appeared in January-February 2010 edition of the US socialist organisation Solidarity's magazine Against The Current. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]