Is Black America Too Important to Fail?

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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“I’m still waiting for my 40 acres and a mule,” my friend said as we talked about the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. We both worried that once again black America would not receive the full economic assistance that it needs. While the nation’s attention has been drawn to the economic crisis generally, there seems to be little attention to the even worse economic news for black communities. Since no one is paying attention, my friend and I had little hope that black communities facing more extreme troubles would benefit from direct aid anytime soon.

On many measures, it is clear that blacks are being hit the hardest by the declining American economy. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies had already informed us that blacks and Hispanics were about twice as likely as whites to receive a subprime loan. This fact would lead one to think that blacks would have about twice the foreclosure rate as whites. If that were true, that would be bad enough. But a new report by AARP [PDF] finds that blacks and Hispanics have foreclosure rates about three times that of whites.

Last August, the black unemployment rate was 7.7 percent. That is a low rate—for blacks. In the past 10 years the white unemployment rate never rose beyond 5.5 percent. This August the black unemployment rate reached 10.6 percent. In September, the black unemployment rate increased again, to 11.4 percent. The white unemployment rate was 5.4 percent in August, and it stayed at 5.4 percent in September. America’s past nine months of declining jobs have had a greater negative affect on black communities than on white communities.

Since 2000, the white family poverty rate is up 0.5 percentage points. The black family poverty rate has risen 2.8 percentage points. For white children, the poverty rate is up 1.0 percentage point; for black children, 3.3 points. The most startling rise is for black families headed by an unmarried male—yes, male. These families have experienced an increase in their poverty rate of 9.4 percentage points. White single males heading a family have only seen a 1.1 percentage point increase in their poverty rate. Americans of all races are hurting, but the level of economic pain is above average in many black communities.

Washington D.C., my hometown, is a good bellwether for black communities generally. The city is majority black, and it has a sizable poor black population. The Washington Post reports that the percent of people receiving food stamps in the District is up 9.2 percent from July 2007 to July this year.

Now that the Wall Street bailout has passed, the issue for blacks to be especially concerned about is that fiscal conservatives of both political parties will use the immediate cost of the bailout as a justification to cut programs that directly benefit average Americans. The argument will be that we cannot afford program X or spending Y because we are $700 billion dollars deeper in debt. This argument is not acceptable.

We still need to effectively address the foreclosure crisis, and we still need economic stimulus policies that will help pull the country out of the current economic recession. Economic growth is ultimately necessary for the country to regain financial stability. Economic growth that reaches black communities is desperately needed.

For a very long time black communities have needed investments, job creation and economic development. The government finds money for bridges to nowhere, missile defense shields of dubious effectiveness, ill-advised wars, Wall Street bailouts and everything else deemed too important to fail. When will our leaders decide that black communities are too important to fail economically?

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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