Black joblessness could cripple Obama's presidency

OPINION - The bad news for the president and his economic advisors is that the rising tide of increased employment is not raising all ships...

Obama’s race problem just got a little deeper. As the rest of the country is starting to see light at the end of the economic tunnel, the African American community just walked into a deeper, darker crawl space than the one it was in before. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released unemployment data for the month of March, finding that unemployment for whites remained steady, while the jobs numbers for African Americans tanked, going from 15.8 percent unemployment to an astonishing 16.5 percent.

The labor reports don’t look good for President Obama, who has been met with considerable pressure from members of the black community to improve the jobs situation for people of color. There are some who argue, with good reason, that the president is simply not working as hard for black folks as he is for everyone else. it can also be said that Obama’s massive effort to fight the job shortage throughout the United States seems to have been working to a certain degree. The month of March was good for most Americans, who were spared further increases in the rate of unemployment. The bad news for the president and his economic advisors is that the rising tide is not raising all ships.

Here’s the breakdown of what President Obama may or may not be looking at this morning (depending on whether or not his advisors even ask him to consider the data): African-Americans continue to have an unemployment rate that is 88 percent higher than that of whites (8.8 percent vs. 16.5 percent). Black women have a rate that is 70 percent greater than white women (7.3 percent vs. 12.4 percent) and black men endure an unemployment rate that is 113 percent higher than that of white men (8.6 percent vs. 19 percent). I ask this question of the president: If white Americans have the right to be angry and complain about 8.8 percent unemployment, then does that mean African-Americans have a right to be twice as angry?

Another intriguing dimension of the data is that ever since whites were met with a peak unemployment rate of 9.7 percent in March 2009, their rate has declined to 8.8 percent, a drop of roughly 10 percent. African-Americans, on the other hand, have seen their unemployment rate rise during the same time period, from 16.2 percent to 16.5 percent. While white men have seen their unemployment rate drop dramatically from 10.7 percent to 8.9 percent, black men have seen almost no decline in their unemployment rate, which has held steady at a whopping 19 percent. So, not only is the rising tide not raising all ships, it is actually allowing some ships to continue to sink or at least remain deeply under water.

Here is what the president needs to do and this needs to happen right now: There must be a clear targeted program aimed squarely in the face of urban America that is designed to create jobs for people in the inner city. The program should aim at cities with the highest rates of unemployment. There should also be programs to support and sustain small business in these communities, as well as the smallest businesses throughout the United States. These businesses need access to critical capital necessary to create job opportunities for residents of these communities.

With all the talk of going green, there must be training in urban America to allow these citizens to take advantage of job opportunities that come along with fighting climate change. There is also the question of the TARP money used to bail out Wall Street. Much of this money has not been spent (half a trillion dollars remain), and $150 billion dollars of that money should be utilized to address unemployment in the hardest-hit areas within the United States. There needs to be a New Deal with Urban America, and I am hopeful this will be one of the subjects of discussion at the National Action Network’s Black Leadership Forum in New York City on April 17 – at least that’s one of the things I plan to talk about the most.

Finally, the president must confront the issue of black teen unemployment, which stands at 41.1 percent for black teens vs. 23.7 percent for whites. Many black teens are not only unemployed, they are terribly educated at inadequately-funded inner city schools. If we do not find a way to educate and employ them, then they will find their way to the penitentiary. These children must be saved by being given a chance to be successful.

I stand by my original assertion that President Obama should reconsider his decision to take advice from Tim Geithner and Lawrence Summers, two men who do little to impress me as financial experts with the necessary background to understand the plight of urban communities. As a Finance Professor myself, I can tell you that if you don’t care about solving a problem, you are not going to be able to solve it. Obama needs a task force on urban unemployment with the power to make meaningful recommendations, and within the context of this task force, he must pursue effective change. If black unemployment is 88 percent higher than that of whites, then one can easily argue that government officials should put forth 88 percent more in per capita resources to deal with our unique economic hurdles. Racial equality in America is not achieved by having a black president; it is achieved by having a vested interest in achieving equality for all black Americans. Anything short of this is entirely unacceptable.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the initiator of the National Conversation on Race. For more information, please visit>