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John A. Powell

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Racial Aspects of Economy Are Significant for White House to Address

Posted: 07/28/10 11:37 AM ET

After an intense and shameful week of poorly dealing with ex-USDA worker Shirley Sherrod and issues of race, the country is left trying to make sense of where we are and why issues of race seem so hard and intractable. There have been many editorials and stories -- many of them very thoughtful. There are questions of blame and many apologies. But what should we do to go forward?

There have been calls from both the left and the right for leadership on race from the White House. Professor Charles Ogletree at Harvard, who is a former teacher of President Obama; Wade Henderson, CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Ward Connerly, best known for his campaign against affirmative action, all have called for a national dialogue on race. But David Axelrod, speaking for the White House, made it clear that there is no interest in even considering that, or any other direct engagement on the matter of race. Axelrod's rejection was as quick as the original commendation of Shirley Sherrod. So much for being more reflective on important matters.

It is not that such a dialogue alone is the best way to move forward. What is very clear is that we need something, and at this juncture it is not coming from the White House. It is not just disturbing how Axelrod rejected this request; it is how he did it. He stated that the White House and the President could not be distracted by race, but instead had to focus on "pressing matters that are significant to all Americans," like the economy.

This is wrong on so many levels. It suggests that the economy and economic policy are not about race. But when one looks at any aspect of the economy, race as well as gender is not far from the surface. There have been a number of reports showing that while the entire country suffers from unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, and even loss of farms, in fact all of these issues have a heavy racial footprint. Not only were blacks and Latinos more likely to get subprime loans and face foreclosure than their white counterparts; they also have been less likely to benefit from the programs put in place to correct these problems.

The administration has been reluctant to collect data by race, instead accepting a blunt race-blind approach supported by conservatives. When one considers unemployment insurance, it was put in place in the 30s to the limited benefit of non-whites. While some of these abuses have been corrected, many have not, and it does not appear the administration is attempting to correct such inequalities. Those who study these issues know that black and Latino unemployment remains consistently higher than white unemployment. And even during the recovery, there have been a number of times that white unemployment has come down while black unemployment has risen. The administration's response: silence.

It is not that the administration is unaware that the economy affects different populations differently. Yet, when it does, there is a need to have universal goals and targeted strategies. In a limited way, this is the approach the administration is taking on gender issues around equal pay and some school and housing issues. For instance, Nevada and a few other states which are harder-hit received more support for those facing foreclosure. While not enough, this targeted approach is encouraging. But although blacks and other people of color have greater hardship, the administration has been largely silent.

The Congressional Black Caucus on more than one occasion has tried to push for policies that would be sensitive to the condition of blacks and other groups of color especially around jobs and unemployment. But there was no support from the administration, which instead pointed to the need to respond to all Americans. But in fact, targeted efforts to help those experiencing greater distress actually do help all Americans. Are blacks Americans? Then they should be included. Recognizing that groups are differently situated on the pathway of success does not mean pandering to one group over another, but rather trying to make the goal of opportunity real for all. Senator Obama acknowledged this in his book before becoming President.

The effort to make America more fair and inclusive for all is not a black or brown thing, it is an American thing. Many of the dynamics today that deny this American reality can best be understood by examining two areas. One is looking at how policy and practices impact different populations because of how they are situated. And the second is how a large share of the anxieties that many Americans feel have an underlying racial subtext. These racial anxieties should not be confused with racism from the 50s and 60s. Many of these anxieties are likely to be implicit. It is not enough to question whether someone is racist or if a policy appears to be racially neutral on its face. We have to look at policies in terms of their effect on different populations and gain a better understanding of subtle ways racial anxieties can derail policies' success.

Many thought that just having and African American in the White House would necessarily positively transform race in America. They were wrong. And the White House is equally wrong if it thinks the economic situation is not about race. We need to have a dialogue and a close examination of our policies -- not only to pinpoint their purpose, but to analyze their results and how they impact different populations. We have wasted many opportunities to learn and to teach. If the White House does not take up the mantle to lead on these important issues, we cannot concede the discussion to Fox News.

I applaud many of efforts over the last week, especially those of Shirley Sherrod. Ultimately, though, the White House must rethink its position that the economy is not about race. If the President is to be President for all, he much address the conditions of all -- including blacks. And yes, we know the right wing will claim he is showing favoritism, but the proper response is to teach and to lead.