The election of the first African-American president was widely hailed as a giant step forward for American racial politics. The future, however, may remember this administration as a giant step back for Black America during a period of deepening alienation, anger and despair in America’s inner cities.
Not since the 1960s, when scores of American cities were shaken by one race riot after another, have African-Americans faced such deadly conditions: high expectations and hopes running up against a reality of vanishing jobs, shrinking government budgets and a fractured and fragmented leadership. Barring an unlikely change in economic fortunes we could soon face a new period of explosive anger and even violence; alternatively, the urban poor could fall prey to a new kind of passive despair and anomie as hope dies on one inner city street after another.
Either way, the mainstream press’s slowly fading intoxication with the Obama administration has led it to miss the dimensions of the new urban crisis now stalking the United States. The liberal Reagan, they swooned back in the good old days. No — the new FDR! No, wait! The new Lincoln!
But as the rosy glow surrounding the administration and all its works slowly dies away, many Americans will be taken aback at the urban crisis that quietly and unostentatiously took shape while the fatuously exhilarated press choirs sang about the hope and the change that was coming our way.
The 21st century urban crisis has five main features: the devastating impact of what for most Blacks is a still-deepening recession; the unfolding effects of the fiscal crisis meshed with the decline of the blue social model; competition for jobs, resources and power between African Americans and mostly Spanish speaking immigrants; the increased fragmentation and disintegration of Black political leadership; and the contrast between the high hopes of 2008 and the grim realities that have come clear since.
“Devastating” is an overused word when it comes to unemployment and the inner city, but the Department of Labor’s latest report (Black Employment in the Recovery) tells an eye-popping story of failure and decline. There is some good news in the report: one quarter of employed African Americans have a college degree, reflecting steady progress over recent decades, and college-educated Blacks earn more and have lower rates of unemployment than do their less well-credentialed counterparts. While women earn less than men (and more than fifty percent of the African Americans who have jobs are women), Black women and men both earn substantially more than Hispanics.
That is about it for good news (though readers with a Hispanic background may not consider the news about Blacks out-earning Hispanics to be particularly ‘good’). Now for the bad. Blacks are more likely to be unemployed than whites (16 percent Black unemployment rate vs. 8.7 percent for whites), they stay unemployed for longer when they lose their jobs, and they are more likely to be unemployed for the long term. The states where unemployment rates for African Americans are relatively low are states where not many African Americans live: Alaska (5.4 percent Black unemployment), Wyoming (6.2 percent), Idaho (8.0 percent), Hawaii (9.6 percent) and (at 10.3 percent) New Hampshire. Except for Hawaii all are generally conservative, low-tax states. The states with the highest unemployment rates for African Americans are staunchly blue: Wisconsin (25 percent), Michigan (23.9 percent), Minnesota (22 percent), Maine (21.4 percent) and Washington (21.4 percent).
The administration-produced Department of Labor report does its best to accentuate the positive, but it is clear that when it comes to employment, the Obama administration has been a total bust for Blacks. Buried deep in the report, for example, we find the mumbled admission that Black unemployment continued to rise in both 2009 and 2010 in finance, transportation and construction. Far from basking in even a feeble recovery, African-Americans have endured two years of rising unemployment since the Obama inauguration.
The second horseman of the urban Armageddon is the collapse of state and local government spending. Blacks are over-represented in public sector employment: according to the Department of Labor almost 20 percent of employed Blacks work in government (compared to under 15 percent for whites and 11 percent for Hispanics). The public sector is the leading employer of Black men and the second largest employer of Black women. With layoffs and cutbacks slashing state payrolls from Maine to California and growing numbers of city and county governments facing financial meltdowns of their own, the outlook for these workers is not good. Government payrolls have actually been shrinking in recent months as the 2009 stimulus comes to an end and states around the country cut their budgets. Some workers will lose their jobs and others will pay more for health and retirement benefits; the worst-hit will be young workers and recent college grads whose paths into middle class public sector employment will be blocked. All levels of government will be hiring at a slower pace for the next few years; that is going to have a disproportionately negative effects on the job prospects of young African Americans.
As government resources dry up, competition between different groups for what remains will intensify. Tension between African Americans and Hispanics is already high in some cities. There is nothing pathological about this tension or peculiar to the two groups: American cities have been battlegrounds of ethnic politics for 150 years. But fights over shrinking pies are nastier than fights over growing ones. Whether Republicans or Democrats control Washington and most state capitals in the coming years, discretionary spending at all level of government is almost certain to shrink, leaving immigrants and urban Blacks in a zero-sum scramble for what’s left.
Meanwhile, as many observers have pointed out, African American political leadership today is divided and poorly equipped. This is partly for reasons I discussed in my recent post on the decline of race; while many poor Blacks still live in a race-dominated world, talented and educated African Americans have options today that their parents and grandparents lacked. African American baseball players were once forced to play for the Negro Leagues; when Major League Baseball opened the doors to Black players, the Negro Leagues lost their best talent — and their fan base. 1947 was the year when Jackie Robinson broke the color bar in baseball; fifteen years later both Negro Leagues were gone.
Something similar is happening to race-oriented civic groups and political movements; Black politicians who can break out of the “race market” get to be governors, senators and president; those who identify as “race politicians” get to be aldermen or at most members of the House of Representatives. As University of Chicago Professor Michael C. Dawson (author of Black Visions and the forthcoming Not In Our Lifetimes) points out, this generally means that these politicians must focus less on issues like racial equality and urban poverty and address issues of more, ahem, “general” interest. This is the approach President Obama took as both a candidate and as president. Candidate Obama talked more about the war in Iraq than about Hurricane Katrina, and as President he has avoided any sense of special advocacy for Blacks.
The same phenomenon holds true across the professions. The wealthiest and best educated fifth of the African American population enjoy six-figure incomes and a range of employment opportunities more like those of high income whites than like those of the inner city poor. Ideologically, many African American leaders and elites steer shy of the world view of men like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright or the socialist and identity politics of the 1960s and 1970s.
But it is not just a question of ideas. Now that more Blacks have more opportunities to succeed in the general economy, less of the top Black talent goes to work for specifically Black organizations.
Beyond that, a chasm has opened up within Black urban communities. As graphically demonstrated by the massive cheating scandal in Atlanta, teachers and school administrators have one set of priorities; parents have another. The producers of government services such as they are have a vested interest in getting as much money as possible from the government while limiting their accountability to the public. Parents want better schools; teachers (some of them, anyway) want better contracts.
Given the organization, economic power and numbers of public employees, urban African-American politics cannot stray far from the demands of the public unions for high pay, low medical costs, lifetime job tenure, early retirement and generous pensions. But the needs of the majority who don’t work for the government require Black leaders to call for vast expansions of government services.
It would be hard enough to meet the educational needs of inner city children with flexible staffing and low overheads. Trying to meet those needs with the inefficient management techniques, tenured deadwood, incompetent administrators and high fixed cost structure of, say, the Atlanta school district would require astronomical sums.
Having to build a coalition between those who demand inefficient, feather bedded government and those who need government services more than anybody else drives urban Black politics into a dead end. Frequently Black politicians end up fighting to get more money for indefensibly poorly run organizations; add the collusion and cozy backscratching traditional in urban political machines to the mix and Black politicians lose the moral authority and dignity that would make advocacy for the poor more effective.
Politicians who advocate for this conventional form of the Black agenda end up pigeonholed and sidelined in national politics, and low income, urban Blacks feel that the system will never make a serious effort to improve their lives. “New Look” Black politicians like President Obama ally with liberal, good government whites and push specific Black demands off to one side; old style, ward heeling politicians voice the emotions and aspirations of their constituents but are never able to deliver the schools, investment and health care their districts need.
Black America, never ideologically monolithic, is divided in complicated and evolving ways and many of the traditional civil rights organizations and Black community groups are less well equipped to cope with this more difficult community landscape. These problems are also reflected in the state of the Black media; the same trends making life difficult for legacy print media are also present in the Black media where some enterprises were already economically vulnerable. At the same time, the pull of the general media attracts many talented journalists and thinkers away from historically Black journals.
Beneath all this lies a deepening frustration on the street and a growing alienation between low income, less well educated Blacks and the well integrated, well heeled and cosmopolitan elite.
The election of the first African American president was not just a triumph for Black America; it also reflected a deepening crisis of Black politics and Black leadership. Looking at the Black community as a whole, we see that the forces reshaping American life generally are also affecting African Americans. The top quintile is doing pretty well and becoming an increasingly cosmopolitan elite at home not only in white America but in the world as a whole. The bottom end of the income distribution faces much bleaker prospects with declining income and disappearing opportunities for social mobility. The middle class is stressed, divided between those on the public payroll and those in the private sector, and many families face the loss of middle class status and income as the recession grinds on.
Increasingly, following a pattern we see among whites in the United States today, the educational, intellectual and political elite among Blacks is out of touch with the realities, values and emotions of the Black lower and middle class. The institutions that have traditionally helped to bridge that divide (churches, historically Black colleges) are under stress and in some cases have a lower caliber of leadership than in the past.
If we add to this the mounting frustration among many young and poor Blacks (and not only them) about the failure of “hope and change” to make their lives better in any way, we have an explosive mix. Conditions are bad, leadership struggles to rise to the times, hope has soured into disillusion. It now looks increasingly likely that the recovery will continue to move slowly everywhere and especially slowly for Blacks. Out of frustration and economic need, Black politics will shift away from establishment liberalism toward more left wing or Black nationalist options even as whites continue moving toward the right. If that is where we are headed, then President Obama’s election will look to many angry young Blacks less like a milestone for Black America and more like proof that ordinary politics cannot change their lives. The establishment leaders who urge them to keep calm and be patient will not have their confidence or trust.
Worst case, some very hot times could loom not too far ahead.