The Elkhart Double Standard

05/25/2011 01:45 pm ET
  • Alden Loury Senior investigator, Better Government Association

President Barack Obama recently made his fourth trip to job-starved Elkhart, Ind., a city whose plight has come to embody the American economic crisis. But the nation's sympathy and support for Elkhart might have never materialized if it were an all-black community.

I can say that with confidence since there are all-black versions of Elkhart all over the state of Illinois and across the nation -- have been for decades. These communities have never quite received the messages that Elkhart has received. And Americans haven't displayed the same level of understanding when Elkhart's plight has played out in urban American settings experiencing similar economic devastation.

We haven't heard the calls for self-reliance in response to rising unemployment in Elkhart and other cities where jobs have vanished in recent years. There have been no demands for Elkhart residents to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." And the rhetoric in response to the crisis playing out in Elkhart hasn't included the ever-popular catch-phrase of "personal responsibility."

However, for decades, we've heard those messages delivered with passion and force to thousands of black Americans who've toiled and struggled to make ends meet in communities that were abandoned by white residents, middle-class black professionals, small business, retail, manufacturing and industry. They've also endured the lingering impact of decades of racial discrimination. While we are a nation that has elected its first black president, we are also a nation more likely to hire a white felon than an African American with no criminal background.

For far too long, America has held on to the belief that black Americans would rather cry foul than try hard, or collect a hand out rather than work for a paycheck. Such beliefs are ludicrous. Too many Americans have viewed the condition of urban America as the result of unequal effort rather than decades of unequal opportunity.

After all, it is the absence of work -- the loss of opportunity -- that has plagued Elkhart. The unemployment rate there nearly quadrupled from December 2007 to March 2009.

The same hard-luck tune has been playing on the South and West sides of Chicago for even longer. Collectively, the unemployment rate was 22.4 percent in 2007 for the South Side communities of Auburn Gresham, Englewood, Washington Heights and West Englewood. While the nation laments the approach of double-digit unemployment, many black neighborhoods broke that barrier more than 30 years ago -- and have yet to recover.

In 2006, as the final buildings of the Robert Taylor Homes public housing development were about to come down, The Chicago Reporter took a look at a number of economic indicators there in 1970 and 2000.

The decline of Taylor and the city's other public housing communities -- among the poorest black communities in the nation -- has often focused on actions of residents there. But there were other factors at play.

The percentage of Taylor residents who were in the labor force had actually increased between 1970 and 2000, and more of them did so with a high school diploma. Yet, the unemployment rate there had nearly tripled -- from 15.1 percent to 42.5 percent. Why?

It probably had something to do with the city's dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs. In 1970, more than 30 percent of working Robert Taylor Homes residents had jobs in manufacturing. In 2000, just 5 percent of the development's working residents were working in manufacturing.

A year after we examined the history of Taylor, we explored the challenges facing African Americans and Latino immigrants vying for the region's diminishing market of low-wage, low-skilled jobs. Along the way, we explored a number of stereotypes related to employment -- including the one that black people are lazy workers.

What we found was that African American workers in the Chicago area were three times more likely than their white counterparts to have a job requiring them to leave home between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. Black workers were also three times more likely than white workers to commute for longer than two hours. These are certainly statements about the kind of jobs black workers in Chicago have, but they are also statements of the commitment to work that African Americans display all the time. When a Wal-Mart opened in south suburban Evergreen Park, thousands of black folks wrapped themselves around the store, waiting in line for hours, to apply for the few hundred jobs available there.

The economy is finally showing some signs of life, and Elkhart has seen its unemployment rate drop slightly for three consecutive months. Hopefully, the good people of Elkhart will soon find relief and return to work. Their determination and perseverance are an inspiration to us all.

We should also be inspired by the resilience of black Americans who've learned to survive in perpetual, recession-like economic conditions. And instead of showing contempt, perhaps we should offer the same degree of support and understanding for their plight as we have for the folks in Elkhart.