Trump Has Lost His Favorite Talking Point About Black Unemployment

The president's message was misleading to begin with.

Over and over and over, President Donald Trump has bragged that, thanks to his brilliant leadership, Black Americans have enjoyed lower unemployment than ever before.

“Black American unemployment has reached an all-time low in the history of our country,” he said in February. “It’s the best — best we’ve ever done.

“Unemployment rates among African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans have all reached record lows,” he said in January.

“Somebody please inform Jay-Z that because of my policies, Black Unemployment has just been reported to be at the LOWEST RATE EVER RECORDED!” he tweeted in January 2018.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, despite the president initially saying it would go away like magic, the unemployment rate for Black people is now 16.8% ― equal to its peak in the aftermath of the 2007 financial crisis.

Amid a historic, global wave of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and a reckoning with systemic racism in the U.S., Trump has lost the Black unemployment security blanket that he’s used for three years to wave away accusations of white supremacy.

On Wednesday, in a White House meeting with Black administration officials, media personalities and community leaders, Trump acknowledged that his job numbers are no longer good. He noted that he’d had “the best unemployment rate in history, just before the plague came in, and it’s going to be back again soon. I think it’s going to be back again a lot sooner than people think.”

But even before he’d lost the talking point, it wasn’t a good one. The Black unemployment rate reached its record low, 5.4%, last August ― but it was still nearly twice the rate it was for white people at that time.

“Black people should be happy with scraps ― that’s what they’re basically saying when they tout that,” Olugbenga Ajilore, a senior economist at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said in an interview.

Until the coronavirus pandemic, the Black unemployment rate has almost always been more than twice as high as the rate for white people, according to Ajilore’s research. No matter how much that rate has improved, it never quite catches up, always reflecting the systemic racism that excludes African Americans from economic opportunity.

“Black people should be happy with scraps ― that’s what they’re basically saying when they tout that.”

- Olugbenga Ajilore, senior economist, Center for American Progress

If they really wanted to improve Black unemployment rates, policymakers should do something about mass incarceration and enforce anti-discrimination laws, Ajilore wrote in a brief earlier this year.

The coronavirus has shaken up the Black-white unemployment ratio, but not in a good way. In the first monthly jobs report to reflect the impact of the pandemic, the Labor Department said overall unemployment skyrocketed to 14.7% in April, with jobless rates of 14.2% for white people and 16.7% for Black people ― the narrowest-ever gap between the two.

The white unemployment rate declined to 12.4% in May, however, while the rate for Black people actually rose a 10th of a percentage point to 16.8%. Ajilore said the increase reflects the loss of government jobs that Black Americans hold disproportionately.

On Monday, in prepared remarks at the beginning of a briefing, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany pointed to an increase of nearly 300,000 African Americans who were counted as “employed” in May.

“That was a 1.7% increase,” McEnany said, calling the numbers “very encouraging” but not mentioning that because of a larger fluctuation in the estimate of the number of Black people in the labor force, the unemployment rate actually increased, too.

At a separate briefing where Trump touted the decline in the national jobless rate, White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor pointed out to the president that the African American rate had increased. “How is that a victory?” she asked.

Trump scowled. “You are really something,” he said.

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