We Need a Fair Jobs Policy

From the stern way that President Obama dismissed the Congressional Black Caucus last month, you'd think the CBC had insisted that every last dollar of job-creation money go to African Americans.

And from the way some conservative pundits responded (columnist Michelle Malkin, for instance, called it a "shake down"), you'd think the CBC had demanded that the Secret Service round up white folks and force them to empty their bank accounts and hand the money over to black folks.

But of course they didn't. The Congressional Black Caucus made the very reasonable suggestion that 10 percent of the stimulus be targeted to the poorest urban areas, where so many African Americans live. Given that African Americans are about 13 percent of the US population, 10 is actually a very modest request.

Yes, people of all races are suffering mightily in the Great Recession, the worst in 25 years. One in eight families receives food stamps now. But as our grandmothers used to say, when whites catch a cold, Blacks catch pneumonia. December's white unemployment rate of 9% is bad, though better than November's; but the Black and Latino rates jumped to the devastating levels of 16.2% and 12.9%, a 27-year high.

Families survive unemployment better or worse depending on how much of a cushion they have. African American and Latino families entered the recession with a dangerously low median net worth, according to a new report by United for a Fair Economy, The State of the Dream 2010. In 2007, the typical Black household had a net worth of $17,100; the typical Latino family had $21,000; and the typical white family had $170,400. In other words, Blacks had a dime of assets for every white dollar.

African Americans have gotten less than their share of every federal benefit since the Homestead Act handed out land to white settlers in 1865; since Social Security was set up to exclude domestic and agricultural workers; and since the Urban Renewal program of the 1960s was nicknamed "Negro Removal" because it replaced torn-down white apartments but rarely black apartments.

But with the first Black president, and with a Democratic majority swept into office by high Black voter turn-out, we would expect better than this tilt to the white.

It goes without saying that the recent Wall Street bailout saved the jobs of a bunch of rich white men. And of course letting the estate tax expire was a big giveaway to mostly white multimillionaire heirs, since African Americans are 34 times less likely to die with the $3.5 million needed to trigger that most progressive of all taxes.

But even the aid for Main Street favors less-needy whites. By asking states for "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects, the President steered the money towards laid-off construction workers, disproportionately white men who recently had good jobs, rather than to human services and other more diverse occupations. The Associated Press reviewed more than 5,500 transportation projects using federal stimulus money, and found that 50 percent more per person will be spent in the lowest-unemployment places than in the communities that need the jobs most.

By boycotting a key Financial Services Committee vote, the CBC got $6 billion for Black communities added to two bills. Six billion may sound like a lot of money, but it's just one percent the size of the TARP financial bailout.

When President Obama didn't refuse Van Jones's resignation, when he didn't contest the smokescreen charges of flakey-petition-signing and swear-words, he took a dangerous step back from the goal Jones had championed: targeting the new "green jobs" for the urban poor.

A fair jobs policy would not have to explicitly spell out race-equity; literal racial quotas might be controversial enough to kill a bill. But as the 2009 "Put America to Work Act" proposed, it could require the government to target job-creation spending to communities with the highest unemployment rates, or to the workers who have been jobless for the longest time.

President Obama has acknowledged the existence of structural racism. He knows that poor people of color face additional obstacles that poor whites don't have to deal with.

But when he told the CBC that all he "can do for the African-American community is the same thing [he] can do for the American community, period," he was operating as if he believed the tired, old, color-blind myth that general anti-poverty programs will reach every group in need. Only by affirmatively targeting the communities pushed backwards by historic racial injustice will recovery efforts reach everyone.