Presidents On Black Unemployment: Reagan, Carter, Obama

President Obama has taken a lot of heat for not being more aggressive in addressing the country's double-digit unemployment rate among African Americans. Many have questioned why he has not come out with more strongly worded public pronouncements or a jobs agenda specifically to address the issue in the black community.

Others have said that while black unemployment is indeed dire and in need of drastic action, Obama risks coming off as "tribal" (in the words of talkshow host Tavis Smiley) if he were to make such an overture. The president has largely shied away from specific rhetoric as it relates to the black workforce, maintaining instead that "a rising tide lifts all boats" and that as the economy rebounds, all Americans will benefit.

The Huffington Post decided to take a (somewhat informal and incomplete) look at the public statements of President Obama and compare them to what recent past presidents have said about black unemployment, in their statements that most directly targeted the community during times of high black unemployment. This report does not take into account any particular program that might've been put in place or its efficacy, but merely looks at the presidents' rhetoric. Most of the quotes have been taken from documents included in the University of California, Santa Barbara’s The American Presidency Project, an electronic collection of 96,330 documents related to the study of the presidency.


In 1977 President Jimmy Carter met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and told them that black unemployment was his "most important domestic issue right now," according to an article published in The Milwaukee Journal on September 7 of that year. Just a month earlier, jobs reports showed unemployment among black teens at 40 percent, then the highest levels since World War II, the paper reported. "Obviously something has to change," Carter said at the time. The problem, he said, was "a lack of comprehensive urban policy."

On April 5, 1978, during an interview at the White House with a PBS program called "Black Perspective on The News", Carter said that a proposed $8.3 billion in aid to spur growth in urban centers would ease the plight of blacks.

Carter said:

We have built on direct programs that would help people in the cities who are poor. We have cut down the unemployment rate, as you know, about 1.5 or almost 2 percent this past year. But we've also tried to triple purchasing from minority-owned businesses. We've put into the laws that were passed last year -- the Congress did -- a mandatory requirement that 10 percent of the contracts be allotted to minority-owned businesses. We've exceeded those goals.

We've tried to increase, and have succeeded again, in increasing the deposit of federal funds in black-owned banks, up to more than $100 million now. And we've exceeded our goal again.

We plan on setting up an urban bank, which would give loans in special areas. We've advocated to the Congress under this program that tax incentives for employing difficult people to hire be rewarded and also prescribe investment credits on taxation for people who invest in the rundown urban centers. So, I think the cohesion of the whole program, the fact that it was built from the ground up, that it modifies existing programs, it puts a lot of money in, and is targeted, are all new factors.”

He continued:

I think it's obvious that when you reduce the unemployment rate overall in the country, then the special government programs that are designed to help the private sector can be focused more and more specifically on those who are the first to be fired and the last to be hired in the private sector, which is quite often the minority citizens.
So, I think although we have made some progress so far, we have still got a long way to go. And with the lower unemployment rate now, we can focus our attention much more on the black citizens, particularly young black citizens who are heavily affected adversely.

On July 4, 1980, Carter told an audience of NAACP members gathered in Miami that "unemployment, and particularly black unemployment and particularly black young unemployment, is far, far too high."

"Economic justice means more than just jobs for minorities; it also means a chance to build minority-owned businesses," he said. "I've only served 3 1/2 years as president, but I have already appointed more blacks, more women, and more Hispanics to the federal bench as judges than all other presidents in the 200-year history of this country. And I'm not through yet.”


During the 1980 presidential debate in Cleveland between Carter and then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, the exchange turned to black unemployment.

After a bit of back and forth about the nation’s future as a multiracial society, Carter pointed to the highly qualified black and Spanish citizens and women whom he'd brought into top levels of government and made a quip about Reagan, saying that "when (Reagan) was a younger man that there was no knowledge of a racial problem in this country. Those who suffered from discrimination because of race or sex certainly knew we had a racial problem.”

Reagan touched on Carter’s insistence on a minimum wage and what he proposed as its downside in helping blacks get jobs, saying:

Now, the President spoke a moment ago about -- that I was against the minimum wage. I wish he could have been with me when I sat with a group of teenagers who were black and who were telling me about their unemployment problems, and that it was the minimum wage that had done away with the jobs that they once could get. And indeed, every time it has increased, you will find there is an increase in minority unemployment among young people. And therefore I have been in favor of a separate minimum for them ... With regard to the great progress that has been made with this government spending, the rate of black unemployment in Detroit, Michigan, is 56 percent.

In 1981 during the NAACP convention in Denver, Reagan spoke at length about the government's role in black employment.

Here's an excerpt from Reagan's speech.

Can the black teenager who faces a staggering unemployment rate feel that government policies are a success? Can the black wage earner who sees more and more of his take-home pay shrinking because of government taxes feel satisfied? Can black parents say, despite a massive influx of federal aid, that educational standards in our schools have improved appreciably? Can the women I saw on television recently -- whose family had been on welfare for three generations and who feared that her children might be the fourth -- can she believe that current government policies will save her children from such a fate?

We ask these tough questions, because we share your concerns about the future of the black community. We ask these questions, because the blacks of America should not be patronized as just one more voting bloc to be wooed and won. You are individuals, as we all are. Some have special needs. I don't think the federal government has met those needs.
I've been listening to the specific needs of many people -- blacks, farmers, refugees, union members, women, small business men and women, and other groups -- they're commonly referred to as special-interest groups. Well, in reality they're all members of the interest group that I spoke of the day I took the oath of office. They are the people of America. And I'm pleased to serve that special-interest group.

Reagan continued:

The well-being of blacks, like the well-being of every other American, is linked directly to the health of the economy. For example, industries in which blacks had made sufficient gains in employment -- substantial gains, like autos and steel -- have been particularly hard hit. And "last hired, first fired" is a familiar refrain to too many black workers. And I don't need to tell this group what inflation has done to those who can least afford it. A declining economy is a poisonous gas that claims its first victims in poor neighborhoods, before floating out into the community at large.

Therefore, in our national debate over budget and tax proposals, we shall not concede the moral high ground to the proponents of those policies that are responsible in the first place for our economic mess -- a mess which has injured all Americans. We will not concede the moral high ground to those who show more concern for federal programs than they do for what really determines the income and financial health of blacks -- the nation's economy.

Now, I know you've been told that my proposal for economic recovery is designed to discriminate against all who are economically deprived. Now, those who say that could be confused by the misstatements that have been made by some who are either ignorant of the facts or those who are practicing, for political reasons, pure demagoguery.
Rebuilding America's economy is an absolute moral imperative if we're to avoid splitting this society in two with class against class. I do not intend to let America drift further toward economic segregation. We must change the economic direction of this country to bring more blacks into the mainstream, and we must do it now.

Reagan then quoted the Langston Hughes poem "Let America Be America Again," and then compared the U.S. economy to the Underground Railroad:

It has spirited them away from poverty to middle-class prosperity and beyond. But too many blacks still remain behind. A glance at the statistics will show that a large proportion of the black people have not found economic freedom. Nationwide, for example, 43 percent of black families in 1979 had money incomes under $10,000. Harriet Tubman, who was known as the "conductor" of that earlier underground railroad, said on her first escape from slavery, "When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything." Even after a century, the beauty of her words is powerful. We can only imagine the soaring of her soul, what a feeling that must have been when she crossed into freedom and the physical and mental shackles fell from her person. Harriet Tubman's glory was the glory of the American experience. It was a glory which had no color or religious preference or nationality. It was simply, eloquently, the universal thirst that all people have for freedom.

Reagan continued:

I genuinely and deeply believe the economic package we've put forth will move us toward black economic freedom, because it's aimed at lifting an entire country and not just parts of it. There's a truth to the words spoken by John F. Kennedy that a rising tide lifts all boats. Yes, I know it's been said, "What about the fellow without a boat who can't swim?" Well, I believe John Kennedy's figure of speech was referring to the benefits, which accrue to all when the economy is flourishing.


The "rising tide" metaphor, first used by John F. Kennedy, has been a central theme in how Obama has discussed his approach to healing the country's economic and employment troubles.

During a presidential news conference on April 29, 2009, Andre Showell of Black Entertainment Television posed the following question to Obama:

“Mr. President, as the entire Nation tries to climb out of this deep recession, in communities of color the circumstances are far worse. The black unemployment rate, as you know, is in the double digits. And in New York City, for example, the black unemployment rate for men is near 50 percent. My question tonight is, given this unique and desperate circumstance, what specific policies can you point to that will target these communities?"

President Obama responded:

Well, keep in mind that every step we're taking is designed to help all people. But folks who are most vulnerable are most likely to be helped because they need the most help. So when we passed the Recovery Act, for example, and we put in place provisions that would extend unemployment insurance or allow you to keep your health insurance, even if you've lost your job, that probably disproportionately impacted those communities that had lost their jobs.

And unfortunately, the African-American community and Latino community are probably overrepresented in those ranks. When we put in place additional dollars for community health centers to ensure that people are still getting the help that they need, or we expand health insurance to millions more children through the Children's Health Insurance Program, again, those probably disproportionately impact African-American and Latino families simply because they're the ones who are most vulnerable. They've got higher rates of uninsured in their communities.

Then came that all-weather rising tide metaphor.

So my general approach is that if the economy is strong, that will lift all boats, as long as it is also supported by, for example, strategies around college affordability and job training, tax cuts for working families as opposed to the wealthiest that level the playing field and ensure bottom-up economic growth. And I'm confident that that will help the African-American community live out the American Dream at the same time that it's helping communities all across the country. Okay?

In June of 2009 during another news conference, Obama was asked, with the unemployment rate among African Americans projected to hit 20 percent, “Why not target intervention now to stop the bloodletting…?”

Obama answered that "the best thing that I can do for the African-American community or the Latino community or the Asian community -- whatever community -- is to get the economy as a whole moving."

He continued:

If I don't do that, then I'm not going to be able to help anybody. So that's priority number one. It is true that in certain inner-city communities, the unemployment rate is -- was already sky high even before this recession. The ladders available for people to enter into the job market are even worse. And so we are interested in looking at proven programs that help people on a pathway to jobs.

But what about the criticism that such an approach isn't targeted enough?

"All right, last question," the president responded, before moving on to Suzanne Malveaux of CNN and her questions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In December 2009, Obama, during an interview with April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks, laid out most clearly his philosophy on targeting blacks specifically in his jobs agenda, and reacted to criticism by some of his more popular allies who have turned critics.

"Speaking of the African-American community, there seems to be a shift in black leadership, as it relates to supporting you," Ryan said. "You have the CBC that's upset with you about targeting on the jobs front –- African Americans, 15.6 percent unemployment rate, expected to go to 20 percent; mainstream America, 10 percent. Then you have black actors who supported you -- Danny Glover, who's saying that you've not changed, your administration is the same as George W. Bush. What are your thoughts about the fact that black leadership is grumbling, and the fact that people are concerned with you being the first African-American president, and they thought that there would be a little bit more compassion for black issues?"

President Obama responded:

"So, we have made a series of steps that make a huge difference. The only thing I cannot do is, you know, by law I can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks. I'm the President of the entire United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That, in turn, is going to help lift up the African-American community."

"But we're going to have a hole that we have to dig out of for a long time, and it has to do with structural impediments to opportunity that we are going to continue to try to knock down. But it's not going to happen in one year; it's going to take not just one term, but it's going to take years. The important point is that we're moving in the right direction."

This month the black unemployment rate has hovered around 16 percent among blacks and is even higher in particularly hard-hit areas of the country.