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John A. Powell

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Administration Must Acknowledge and Address the Growing Crisis in the Black Community

Posted: 04/16/10 08:49 AM ET

Heaster Wheeler, Executive Director of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP, also contributed to this article.

The recent employment figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that Black unemployment is on the rise again (returning to 16.5%). These figures remind us that the persistent economic crisis facing the Black community is not being addressed by the broad and universal approach to job creation embraced by the Obama administration and Congress. More pointedly, growing evidence suggests that Black communities and other marginalized populations are not being adequately reached and are not benefiting from these current economic policies.

The reason for this continuing challenge is fairly simple and straightforward; the circumstances that different groups in the United States face are all particular to them, and different. For example, Black workers are more likely to be physically isolated from job centers, to be located in poor urban and rural areas and to face conditions that other communities might not. Such challenges are not limited to just Black workers. Women are less likely to be in the construction trades and other groups may face language barriers. In this post-industrial age, industrial centers like the City of Detroit have been turned into ground zero for the economic crisis with deindustrialization and the housing crisis creating conditions unlike any other place in the nation. Unfortunately, meaningful federal policies have not been crafted to address this situation.

Community context requires carefully-crafted policy that is sensitive to the needs of each community. In fact, many government policies in the past and present reflected an understanding of these complications. For example, the Obama administration and Congress both recognized the need to focus on the hardest-hit states and cities to address the foreclosure epidemic. In the area of education under President Bush, No Child Left Behind moved leaders to collect data that provided the necessary picture of how blacks, Latinos and low income Whites are doing in school, rather than burying their information in aggregated data. Federal policy is often tailored to address the special needs and context of various communities. This is a good thing, leading to more effective policies and public investments. Such an approach is more likely to benefit a greater number of Americans, and it is more fair. Despite this legacy, time and time again, as the administration addresses the economic crisis, little policy is directed to those marginalized communities most devastated by recession. While the one-size-fits-all approach shows up in a number of the Administration's efforts, it is most pronounced in areas where we can immediately track some of the consequences.

What is most disturbing is the Obama Administration's failure to take into account the particular circumstances of the Black community in addressing the fallout from the economic crisis, or to even acknowledge the depth of the crisis facing our community. This oversight is not due simply to the administration and Congress; it also speaks to the uncharacteristic silence from much of our nation's Black leadership on this issue. While some Black leaders such as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have spoken out about the needs of Black America not being met, too many Black leaders and members of the Black community remain quiet and are not vigorously asserting those needs in this time of crisis in the Black community.

Regardless of the conditions the Black community faces, the President continually asserts that he is president of all Americans and cannot just focus on Black America. We accept this, and we do not call for the Black community to receive special treatment, but we insist that the Administration's policies be sensitive to the particular challenges and disproportionate impact of the economic crisis on the Black community and other marginalized groups. We contend that to meaningfully regard someone as a member of society requires for our government to acknowledge and be sensitive to their circumstances. The failure to do this makes them all but invisible and represents a form of callous disregard.

What we are demanding for Black America is that their special challenges be counted and considered when crafting solutions and designing our nation's future. We believe that the goals of putting Americans back to work and improving foreclosure rates are goals needed for all Americans, but that the pathway to these solutions must be sensitive to the different conditions of different groups. We can have both universal goals and a targeted approach to policy and solutions, an approach also known as targeted universalism.

Such an approach is not favoritism; it is realism. Targeting policies is a way to assure they are effective, given the particular conditions facing each community. A targeted approach strives for equity among all Americans. An agenda or approach which is not a Black agenda, a Latino agenda or a regional agenda, but is in fact an inclusive agenda, assures the needs of all marginalized communities must be embraced and included in our diverse democracy. What we cannot allow is for the Obama administration, Congress or others to craft policy which ignores or disregards the crisis facing Black America. A stance not inclusive of Black America's needs within our nation's agenda is an un-inclusive position that ultimately undermines our democracy.