An Economic Crisis for African Americans

Dr. Boyce Watkins | 8/15/2010, 11:08 a.m.

30,000 Line Up in the Heat for Housing Assistance in Atlanta

A massive number of people showed up in downtown Atlanta this week hoping to get a chance to obtain free housing. Over 30,000 people reportedly waited in sweltering heat just to get an application for one of 400 vacant units for public housing in East Point, a section of the city.

There were 13,000 applications given out, meaning that most of the people applying for housing won't receive a unit. Medical personnel and police were on hand to help some of those who'd been overtaken by heat exhaustion. It is unclear why residents had to wait outside in the heat in order to apply for a place to live.

The story in Atlanta is a sad reflection of what's been happening nation-wide to the African American community since the start of last year's recession. While many of us are fortunate enough to have jobs, there are hundreds of thousands of others who've been unable to find work and don't have the ability to meet basic needs.

According to the latest data with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black unemployment remains at 15.6 percent, which is nearly twice as high as the 8.6 percent unemployment rate for white Americans. Atlanta has a disproportionate number of African Americans relative to other cities, meaning that the city has been hit especially hard by the recession.

The logic of our elected officials when it comes to dealing with massive urban unemployment seems to argue that "trickle over" economics can become a substitute for reducing structural inequality. Rather than targeting urban areas and groups where unemployment is highest, officials wish to engage in the act of uniformly spreading job creation across all geographic and demographic spectra. President Obama's statement about how a "rising tide will lift all boats," doesn't take into account that some of the passengers on America's economic boat have historically been relegated to the bottom of the ship.

Even if our government's policies of job creation were to work, the fundamental issues of economic and labor inequality would still remain. For example, a 30 percent decline in unemployment across the board would mean that whites would enjoy an unemployment rate of slightly less than six percent, while African Americans would still be above 11 percent, which is over 33 percent higher than the rate that whites are complaining about right now.

Such a decline would be hailed a success by the Obama Administration, while African Americans would remain in a condition that is worse than the one that white Americans are stressed over at the moment.

My example above explains how we've come to accept black suffering as a default state of America. Like dogs being forced to sit out in a cage in sweltering heat, no one spends much time empathizing with the pain of our community. We expect the hot and miserable dog to be happy because he gets to eat, while everyone else complains about not having enough air conditioning.

Unemployment of over 15 percent for African Americans is unacceptable, and the idea that eight percent unemployment for white Americans draws dramatically more interest and attention from our government is another reminder of black second class citizenship.

There should be targeted economic policies which relate to dealing with urban unemployment. There must also be a forced dialog on matters that relate to racial inequality. The dialog must not be led by the president or any other elected official, it must be led by the people. So, I encourage anyone who cares about these problems to force the issue, pass the topic along to others, and speak on the matter whenever you can.

Perhaps we can also work to support elected officials who are courageous enough to honestly confront the racial disparities among us. Maxine Waters is personally at the top of my list.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and a Scholarship in Action Resident of the Institute for Black Public Policy.