The State of Our Fragmented Union

These addresses often have an optimistic spin, and particularly so as a president nears the end of his term and seeks to cement his legacy, so let me say a few things that Mr. Obama surely knows but may be reluctant to put into words.
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This evening, President Obama will give his final State of the Union address. These addresses often have an optimistic spin, and particularly so as a president nears the end of his term and seeks to cement his legacy, so let me say a few things that Mr. Obama surely knows but may be reluctant to put into words.

For Americans of all colors, the state of our union is not good, both economically and politically.

Officially, the U.S. economy has been in recovery since 2009, when our GDP stopped shrinking and started growing. But for the majority of working Americans it doesn't feel like a recovery when wages are stagnant and a growing number of jobs are part-time, temporary or otherwise insecure.

It's even worse for communities of color, the nation's fastest growing groups. The racial wealth gap isn't getting any better, and it persists even among those with a college degree. While many white families still feel like we're still in a recession, for too many black and Latino families, it feels like a depression. The unemployment rate for African American men age 20 and up, for example, remains stuck at 9.9 percent, compared to 4.0 percent for whites in the same age bracket.

This, mind you, is after six years of a recovery that at some point must slow down. Economic forecasts are notoriously imperfect, but growing numbers of economists see a slowdown coming in the next year or two.

Meanwhile, the politics of racial resentment keep getting meaner, louder and more overt. With Donald Trump leading the way, appeals to xenophobia and prejudice have transformed from dog whistles to air-raid sirens. And while economic insecurity may explain part of the appeal of such tactics, it doesn't seem to explain all of it. Pondering Trump's appeal to white voters without a college degree, Eduardo Porter recently wrote in the New York Times,

Such voters are nostalgic for the country they lived in 50 years ago, when non-Hispanic whites made up more than 83 percent of the population. Today, their share has shrunk to 62 percent as demographic change has transformed the United States into a nation where others have a shot at political power.

Their fear is understandable. In general, the concerns of Hispanic and black American voters are often different from those of white voters. But the reaction of whites who are struggling economically raises the specter of an outright political war along racial and ethnic lines over the distribution of resources and opportunities.

These fears and resentments cause significant numbers of working class whites to vote against their own economic interests. As Greenlining Institute board co-chair George Dean put it to me recently, "Racism and bigotry are more important that economics -- and for what?"

Asian Americans, often put on a media pedestal as a successful "model minority," face a different problem. The model minority myth makes it easy to ignore shockingly high poverty rates of as high as 38 percent in some Southeast Asian immigrant communities.

There is a path forward. We can create a rising tide the does in fact lift all boats -- for real, not the illusion peddled by so many post-Reagan Republicans who sold the snake oil that deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy would magically produce prosperity. Smart policies can lift wages, protect workers and use growth industries like the exploding clean-energy economy to channel investment and opportunities into communities where the recession still looks like a depression.

But this requires leadership. It requires those seeking the presidency or seats in Congress to ignore nearly all of the political advice they get from consultants and pollsters. Don't pander to resentments. Don't try to cobble together small groups of aggrieved voters into a narrow majority that can squeak you though the election at the cost of leaving the country increasingly fractured and ungovernable.

More than ever, we need those who seek to lead us to be bold and to think big. Sketch out a vision for an America that gains from its diversity, where success isn't a zero-sum game in which your growth means my loss and vice versa, where anyone from any background can climb the ladder of opportunity and know the game isn't rigged against them.

It's possible, but only if our leaders have the vision and courage to give it a try.

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