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Dr. Boyce Watkins Headshot

Black Unemployment and the Great Black Disconnect From Obama

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President Obama has a problem, a very serious one. The president's problem is what I would call "The Great Black Disconnect." This divide is the place where black America's love and appreciation for the Obamas disconnects from the intense economic suffering of the African American community. Like a festering and infected wound that remains untreated, President Obama's support within the black community is threatened by the fact that the people who love him most are suffering unlike anything our nation has seen over the last 50 years.

This week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its unemployment numbers for the month of April. The figures were consistent with the jobless recovery that has taken good care of Wall Street, but created homelessness on Main Street. The national unemployment rate grew from 8.8 percent to 9 percent, which will surely perpetuate President Obama's somber ratings on economic performance.

A more interesting story beneath the surface is the fact that black unemployment continues to rise to levels that would be outrageous for any other loyal constituency. Black unemployment grew to a startling 16.1 percent, from 15.5 percent last month. This is an even bigger increase than the rise from 15.3 percent the previous month.

Black women are dealing with 13.4 percent unemployment, while black males have the highest unemployment rate of all ethnic groups, at 17 percent. The most recent jobless rate for African American males is higher than the rates of 16.8 percent and 16.2 percent for March and February, respectively. Most ironic is that while this much joblessness would represent a state of emergency for the rest of America, African American males are not given a license to speak publicly about their concerns. The mandated political silence within the black community is similar to the "stop snitching" campaigns that keep police from finding assailants in urban neighborhoods. No one wants to snitch on the fact that the Obama administration has shown little public concern for distorted realities between black and white labor markets, and this is obviously disappointing.

We know that the unemployment problems for the black male are only extensions of equally deep concerns about mass incarceration and poor educational systems. Actually, the systems feed off one another, for the black male attending the underfunded inner city school is far more likely to end up in the unemployment line. He also has a very good chance of ending up in prison.

The big problem for President Obama is not that the black community would ever abandon him. They love him like a family member, and desperately want to see him succeed. The real concern for the president is that the black community may simply support him from the sidelines, as they've been politely asked to re-embrace the same disenfranchised hopelessness that plagued us before Obama made us believe the words "Yes we can." When black Obama supporters ask suffering African American families to remain silent for the sake of preserving the presidency, they are asking them to accept the fact that President Obama is too busy with more important issues to address the challenges of racial inequality.

The grave concern with the "stop snitching on Obama" argument is that it tells black Americans that they are politically irrelevant and must rely solely on self-sufficiency to solve their problems, instead of asking the federal government to reinvest their tax dollars to help alleviate the crises that are affecting them. So, when you've adequately convinced a constituency that they are not important enough for the White House Agenda, these individuals may begin to feel invisible and unable to affect the outcome of an election. It's hard to explain to someone that they are unimportant when it comes to presidential priorities, yet critically important when it comes to showing up at the polls. So, when the day comes for the single black mother on the brink of homelessness to choose between going to vote or going to her job, she is going to remember that it's up to her and her alone to take care of her family. Therefore, she is going to go to work on election day and then pray that Obama gets reelected; after all "Obama ain't payin' no bills up in this house."

So, The Great Black Disconnect reflects the fact that black people who love Obama may ultimately disconnect their love for him with their ability to invest the time and energy necessary to get him reelected. The Beyonce fan who doesn't have money to buy her CD represents the kind of love that doesn't show up in record sales. The fan believes that Beyonce will be wealthy whether she buys her CD or not. Similarly, the struggling black citizen with her picture of Barack Obama next to Jesus and Martin Luther King may feel that his/her vote doesn't matter in a nation of over 300 million people. Also, the message of self-sufficiency being repeated by "stop-snitching" Obama supporters may convince her that the complexion of the White House makes little to no difference in her day-to-day life. In other words, she will disconnect her adulation for the Obamas with the impact that voting will have on her personal outcomes. This becomes a serious threat to the Obama presidency.

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