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The Deepening Recession in Black America


The recession has been hard on everyone. Tens of millions of people lost their jobs. Many of those who didn’t lose their jobs suffered salary cuts. Retirement savings and home values have plummeted.

Even people who have kept their jobs and homes have had to worry about the possibility of losing them.

But the recession is officially over. In fact, it has officially been over since June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Last month, we entered the fourth year of recovery.

The reality, though, is that in America there are two of everything. There are white and black schools. There are white and black stores. There are even white and black rappers.

And of course there have been two recessions: a White Recession and a Black Recession.

The White Recession was sharp and painful, but soon over. White America is slowly returning to normal. It’s a shade poorer normal to be sure, but normal all the same.

For white men, October 2009 brought the highest unemployment rate of the past sixty years. White male unemployment maxed out at 9.7 percent. It’s now stable at 6.9 percent.

This rate is still too high, but it’s not catastrophic – unless you’re one of the 6.9 percent.

The white female unemployment rate is now even lower: just 6.8 percent. Throughout the recession, it never rose above 7.3 percent.

The White Economy is weak, but it’s been weak for a long time. It’s been dragged down by long-term wage stagnation, cuts in government professional employment and declining union membership.

The Black Economy, on the other hand, is still in full-blown recession.

The Black Recession has now dragged on for four years, if not forty. Black male unemployment is 14.8 percent, and the current trend is up.

The unemployment rate for black men maxed out at 18.0 percent in August 2011, but even that wasn’t a record. In the early 1980s recession, the black male unemployment rate went over 20 percent.

The black male unemployment rate has now been over 10 percent for 49 consecutive months. But that’s normal. It’s been over 10 percent in more than half of all months on record since measurement began in 1972.

That 10 percent figure is for men who are in the labor market and actively seeking work. It doesn’t include, for example, the 5 percent of black men who are currently in jail.

Black women also face serious challenges in the job market. The black female unemployment rate is 11.5 percent, down from a recession high of 13.9 percent in December 2011.

The unemployment rate for black women has now been over 10 percent for 42 consecutive months. Like the black male unemployment rate, it’s been over 10.5 percent for over half of all months on record since 1972.

The Black Recession is the proverbial elephant in the room. No one talks about it, but it’s there. It’s been there for four years, or forty years, if it’s been there a day.

In America’s cultural and racial climate, it’s understandable that President Obama prefers to avoid the subject of the Black Recession. But as he is fond of pointing out, he is the president of all Americans, and that includes black Americans.

Mr. President, the elephant in the room is not a Republican. It’s long past time to put an end to the Black Recession. Above all, that means jobs. If the private sector won’t provide them, the government should. That means you.

We can’t have a jobs program that’s just for blacks. But we can have a jobs programs that provides work with dignity to all Americans and that includes black Americans. Roosevelt did it. Johnson did it. Obama can do it.

Mr. President, put America back to work.

Salvatore Babones is a senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). He is the author of the forthcoming book, Benchmarking America. He can be reached through his website.

This column was distributed by OtherWords.

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