By DeWayne Wickham
I hope this isn't what people mean by a "colorblind society."
When the Department of Labor announced the unemployment rate fell from 10% to 9.7% in January, Democrats from the White House to Capitol Hill gushed like a school kid who'd just aced a test in a class he was struggling to pass.
"While unemployment remains a severe problem, today's employment report contains encouraging signs of gradual labor market healing," said Christina Romer, who heads the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Like Romer said last month in a report she issued, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi credits the $787 billion economic stimulus bill President Obama signed a year ago with helping to create or save nearly two million jobs.
"Today's jobs report marks a welcome step in the right direction for our economy and our families: the unemployment rate is going down," Pelosi said.
But overlooked by Romer and Pelosi is this troubling (at least for me) detail: While the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate declined in January for whites and Hispanics, it went up three-tenths of a percent for blacks.
Even more worrisome, the jobless rate for black men age 20 and older rose a full percentage point to 17.6%. That amount of joblessness is closer to the level of Americans who were unemployed at the height of the Great Depression (24.9%), than to the percentage of white men (9.1%) who were out of work in January.
This largely overlooked fact should do more than put a damper on last month's "good" employment news. It ought to cause the Obama administration and the Democrats who control Congress to worry aloud about whether the economic recovery they believe is underway is leaving their most loyal constituents behind. But so far Romer has made only a vague reference to the "unacceptably high" unemployment rate of "black or African American workers,” without acknowledging that it's moving in the wrong direction.
In November, the National Urban League urged the White House and House and Senate leaders to create a new $168 billion stimulus plan that would target job creation efforts in "communities with the highest rates of unemployment and the long-term unemployed who often face the greatest barriers to getting a job the longer they are without one."
Then in December Urban League President Marc Morial met with the Lawrence Summers, head of the president's National Economic Council to push that idea. "We're reviewing the president's proposed budget as well as both Senate and House jobs bills" to see if any of what his group suggested ended up in a piece of legislation, Morial told me. That's a subtle way of saying he hasn't heard from the White House or Congress since making that pitch.
That should make a lot of black folks want to holler. That it apparently hasn’t, ought to cause a trembling in James Weldon Johnson's grave. In 1924, when blacks were as tightly linked to Republicans as they are now to Democrats, Johnson, the NAACP's executive secretary, offered this assessment of their political standing: "The Negro demands less by his ballot, not only in actual results but even in mere respect for himself as a voter than any of all the groups that go to make up the American citizenry," he said.
The "colorblind society" that hoisted Obama into the White House threatens to make those words as haunting today as they must have been 86 years ago.