Not Yet at the Promised Land


Over the past week, Americans — and people around the world — rightfully celebrated the breakthrough election of an African-American to be President of the United States.

Barack Obama’s election signals a significant shift in U.S. racial attitudes, especially among younger people. Obama received a higher portion of the white vote than Democratic candidate John Kerry did in 2004 — in fact, he won a higher share (43 percent) than any Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Obama won a strong majority of white voters under age 29 (beating McCain 54-44).

Such a performance by a Black candidate was very hard to imagine even two years ago.

But as epochal as is Obama’s victory, celebrations of racial progress — especially among Whites — need be tempered by an acknowledgement of other racial realities.

The United States has not reached the promised land of racial equality and justice.

Consider this set of extraordinary statistics:

* The U.S. unemployment rate for Whites in October was 5.3 percent. For Latinos, it was 8.8 percent. For African-Americans, 11.1 percent. [1]

* African-Americans’ median income is about 80 percent of Whites. Latinos make about 72 percent of Whites’ median income. [2] The median White household income in 2007 was $54,920. For Blacks, it was $33,916. For Latinos, $38,679. [3]

* White households have 10 times more wealth than Black households. Median household wealth for Whites is $118,300; for Blacks, it is $11,800 (2004 data). [4]

* Whites have more than 100 times the financial wealth of Blacks. Median financial wealth for Whites is $36,100, for Blacks $300 (2004 data). [5]

* The African-American poverty rate is three times higher than the rate for Whites. Poverty rates: Whites, 8.2 percent; Blacks, 24.5 percent; Latinos, 21.5 percent. [6]

* Child poverty rates track the overall poverty ratios. About one in 10 White children live in poverty (10.5 percent). For African-Americans, the figure is 33.2 percent. For Latinos, 28.9 percent (2004 data). [7]

* Three quarters of White families own their home. Less than half of Blacks and Latinos own their home. [8]

* The percentage of Whites with a bachelor’s or more advanced degree is 30.5. For African-Americans, it is 17.7. For Latinos, 12 percent. Two-and-a-half times more Whites have PhDs or professional degrees than Blacks or Latinos. And education is among the social indicators where the Black-White disparity is closing fastest. [9]

* The African-American infant mortality rate is 2.4 times the rate for Whites. [10]

* African-American children are exposed to unsafe lead levels two-and-a-half times the rate for White children (2002 data). [11]

* The incarceration rate for African-Americans is 4.8 times higher than for Whites. For Latinos, it is 1.6 times higher than for Whites. [12]

The economic crisis will make almost all of these numbers worse. Unemployment and poverty rates will go up for everyone, but jump the most for Blacks and Latinos. African-American wealth is being decimated. While they don’t have much in the stock market, on average, African American wealth is concentrated in housing stock that is declining in value, and African Americans were disproportionately lured into predatory and unsustainable subprime loans. Cutbacks in social services will disproportionately hurt Black and Latino families.

What can be done to close these gaps, so that the remarkable story of Barack Obama signals not just a cultural shift, but helps drive a reduction in wealth and income inequality?

The good news in this story is that the best hope lies in many of the policies needed to address the economic crisis and economic insecurity. A massive increase in government spending in public works, energy efficiency and renewable energy will create good jobs employing people of all colors. Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act will enable workers to join unions without having to face employer intimidation. Unions raise up worker wages (and improve quality of worklife, among other crucial benefits), thereby reducing inequality. And adoption of a single-payer health system — a Medicare for All plan that provides every person with access to quality healthcare while eliminating costly bureaucratic waste — would reduce healthcare disparities.

Will the Obama administration deliver on these policy goals? Unfortunately, while Obama has promised healthcare reform, he has not supported a single-payer plan. There are very hopeful signs that he will push a massive public investment plan. And he supports the Employee Free Choice Act, though passage is definitely not assured.

Perhaps a better question than asking whether the Obama administration will deliver on these policy goals is: Will the outpouring of civic energy that elected the first African-American President in the United States now be channeled to overcome the forces of reaction and the status quo?

Like the civil rights movement, Obama’s election reminds us again what a mobilized public can achieve.

 

[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics, <http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm>.

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics, <http://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkyeng.nr0.htm>.

[3] U.S. Census, "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007," <http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/poverty07.html>.

[4] Economic Policy Institute, State of Working America 2008/2009, <http://www.stateofworkingamerica.org/tabfig/05/SWA06_Tab5.6.jpg>.

[5] Economic Policy Institute, State of Working America 2008/2009, <http://www.stateofworkingamerica.org/tabfig/05/SWA06_Tab5.6.jpg>.

[6] U.S. Census, "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007," <http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/poverty07.html>.

[7] Children’s Defense Fund, "State of America’s Children, 2005,"

<http://www.childrensdefense.org/site/DocServer/Greenbook_2005?docID=1741>.

[8] U.S. Census, <http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/housing/hvs/hvs.html>.

[9] National Center for Education Statistics, "Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Minorities," <http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/minoritytrends/tables/table_26_1.asp?referrer=report>.

[10] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Recent Trends in Infant Mortality in the United States, National Center for Health Statistics," <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db09.htm#arethere>.

[11] Children’s Defense Fund, "Improving Children’s Health: Understanding Children’s Health Disparities and Promising Approaches to Address Them," <http://www.childrensdefense.org/site/DocServer/CDF_Improving_Children_s_Health_Final.pdf?docID=1781>.

[12] Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, <http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/tables/jailrairtab.htm>.

 

Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, and director of Essential Action.

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