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Avis Jones-DeWeever

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Obama's Burden: Addressing the Black Labor Crisis in "Post-Racial" America

Posted: 09/08/2011 4:41 pm

When President Obama addresses the nation with his long-awaited jobs prescription, one thing is certain. Any strategy he puts forth now must not only seek to move the needle for the nation as a whole, it must also include specific remedies for the ever-deepening jobs crisis within black America. Though politically precarious, the August unemployment numbers reveal a crisis that can no longer be ignored. Although America as a whole finds itself seemingly immobilized in its long walk back to economic recovery, the black community continues its plunge, now reaching unemployment rates not seen in this nation for nearly 30 years. These stark and divergent realities make one thing clear, the time for direct action is now.

Yet, as the nation awaits the President's plan for recovery, most certainly any jobs prescription he puts forth will be measured by the politically-driven, and all too convenient pseudo-crisis of the federal deficit.

Is the deficit high? Sure. Could it stand to be lower? Of course. But when some twenty million people across this nation are out of work, six million of whom have been out of work for the long haul, and when we, as a nation, experience the largest number of people living in poverty that we have seen since those statistics have been recorded, along with record levels of food insecurity, the crisis most pertinent to the future of this nation is not some big amorphous number being wielded like a weapon by wealthy men donning fake tans and designer suits. The real crisis is much more organic, much more concrete, much more basic in the lives of families across this nation. It is a crisis that supplants dignity and pushes one to the brink of daily survival.

America's real crisis can be found in the lives of people who continue to wonder where their next paycheck will come from.

People who wonder just how much longer they'll be able to hold on to that roof over their head before the hammer of foreclosure brings their American dream crumbling down all around them.

People who have, all their lives, played by the rules, tried their best, and yet still find themselves trapped in conditions that drain their wealth rather than providing opportunities to expand it.

That is the real crisis. But nowhere is this crisis felt more deeply and experienced more broadly than in the black community. I've seen grown men brought to tears, explaining to me the heartbreak of knowing they have the skills to work, yet despite their greatest efforts, continue to be unable to secure employment. Men who lament seeing some hiring occurring right in their neighborhood, but not seeing anyone from their neighborhood acquiring the few job opportunities that can be found.

One gentleman in particular stands out in my mind. He was a middle-aged African American man with years of construction experience and hard work under his belt. A man who took pride in his work and in his role as family provider. With tears pooling up in his eyes, he asked me sincerely, "Why won't they give us a chance?... Why won't they give us a chance?

I had no answer.

On the other end of the social and educational spectrum, I've spoken to brilliant black women; high achievers, with all sorts of letters following their names. Women who had it all before the Great Recession came upon us, but whom now find themselves, even with all those degrees, even with all of that ability and brilliance, now living through an extended bout of unemployment or severe underemployment and facing the impending loss of homes that they had held for years and had hoped to one day pass down to their children.

That, to me, is America's real crisis.

Yet, their stories, their plight, their struggles are seemingly ignored out of hand by the broader political discourse, or consistently contextualized as individual failings rather than indicators of a need for sweeping, systemic change.

While it is true that black America is bearing the brunt of America's jobs crisis, clearly all types of families across this nation continue to reel in the wake of the recession that has paralyzed this nation for the past four years. We are all hurting, and are now in need of both general and targeted strategies to relieve our pain.

The solution is both simple and widely acknowledged -- getting America back to work. The trick is how? And how to do it in a way that targets those who need assistance the most within a political climate that, admittedly or not, is just waiting to play a gotcha game with a black President who shows any evidence of showing "preferential treatment" to black people.

The answer is not as complicated as some might believe.

The solution can be found within a jobs program that leverages the power of public/private partnerships to strengthen, secure, and "green" America. Such an initiative, would focus on repairing America's crumbling infrastructure, expanding broadband access generally and specifically as related to the construction of a National Emergency Broadband Network like that proposed years ago by the 9-11 Commission. The solution also entails ushering this nation into the future of green technology, innovation and integration in a way that makes us more energy efficient and independent, while keeping the jobs that make that vision real right here at home.

To make the most of this jobs platform, it must be implemented in a way that ensures a significant portion of it be specifically targeted to geographic areas that have experienced especially deep and protracted periods of heightened unemployment. At a minimum, targeting place, instead of race, while simultaneously requiring a significant proportion of those hired be residents of the communities where those initiatives reside, would help ensure that communities of color and poverty-stricken communities of all colors would not be left behind in this new economic push, but instead, be fully integrated into it.

If done right, such an initiative would particularly benefit both rural and urban areas that have for extended periods experienced sparse employment opportunities. From Appalachia to Detroit, from the West Side of Chicago, to East LA, and every urban and rural enclave in-between, Americans would not only be working again, they would both literally and figuratively be rebuilding America for generations to come.

Would such a plan be expensive?

Yes.

Would it expand our deficit?

You bet.

But more importantly, it would get Americans across the color line working again.

And guess what... workers buy goods and services. Workers pay taxes. Workers create revenue for a nation. And the last I heard, deficits are a function of both what money comes in as well as what money goes out.

Most certainly, this is not a plan that will be embraced by those that would rather see the nation go down in flames for their own political gain, rather than address the real suffering that millions face. But such a political reality makes bold, big picture, true blue solutions more important now than ever. Now is the time to propose and push a plan that would work, no matter how politically unpalatable. Now is the time to rally the American people behind a plan that is worth fighting for and one that will not leave those who have suffered the most without specific redress.

In short, it's time for some action. If ever there was a time to fight for the type of change we still need, and still believe in, that time is now.

All of America's people are worth fight for.

 

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