National Urban League head Mark Morial recently described the state of black America today as "the best of times and the worst of times." He's right.
The inauguration of the first African-American president was a moment worth celebrating as an undeniable example of the progress we've made regarding race. Many African-Americans from communities across the county traveled to D.C. to witness the moment. Even more of us gathered around radios, television screens and computer monitors.
It was a brief respite, savored for as long as the day lasted, and then we all returned home, or turned off the television and returned to reality. For reality the day before and the day after was, and remains, an indicator of how far we are from "the Dream" so often referenced on that day. For just as much as "everything changed" for African Americans on that day, at the same time nothing changed, as one article noted days before Obama's inauguration.
Nothing will change for black Americans on Tuesday, when the first black president takes office. They will wake up in the same homes, go to work at the same jobs, face the same obstacles.
Just a month after Barack Obama's inauguration, the State of the Dream 2009 report revealed that Black Americans are, in this economy, experiencing a "Silent Depression," based on the following findings:
- Almost 12% of Blacks are unemployed; this is expected to increase to nearly 20% by 2010. Among young Black males aged 16-19, the unemployment rate is 32.8%, while their white counterparts are at 18.3%.
- Overall, 24% of Blacks and 21% of Latinos are in poverty, versus 8% of whites.
- The median household incomes of Blacks and Latinos are $38,269 and $40,000, respectively, while the median household income of whites is $61,280.
- Nearly 30% of Blacks have zero or negative worth, versus 15% of whites.
- On the median, for every dollar of white wealth, people of color have 15 cents. On average, people of color have 8 cents for every dollar of white wealth.
As the Obama administration neared its 100-day mark, the National Urban League published its State of Black America report, examining black progress in education, home ownership, entrepreneurship, health, other areas, and including a message to the president. The report features an Equality Index, a statistical measurement of the status of blacks compared with whites, and while the change in the index -- from71.5% in 2008 to 71.1% in 2009 -- reflects a continuation of the status quo, it is a status quo defined by disparity, as Morial mentioned in his remarks on the report.
Obama's historic election is a "story of accomplishment, prosperity and increased political power," Morial writes in the forward to the annual study. Yet the "other story is very different," and statistics bear that out.
Morial said the state of black America "is the best of times and the worst of times."
Fewer than 50 percent of African-Americans graduate from high school, prisons are disproportionately populated by black men and there are wide educational achievement gaps along racial lines.
"Taken together, these facts underscore the reality that the election of the first black president does not mean we can now all close up shop and go home," Morial writes.
The report also points that, ironically, that even as an African-American holds the highest office in the country, African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, and three times more likely to live in poverty.
There are other disparities and signs that, as far as we've come, we've a ways yet to go, such as:
- heavier jobs loses for black men, and employment rate has dropped 7.8% since November 2007;
- the rise in school segregation, as black and Hispanic students are more separate from white students than at any point since the civil rights moment;
- tougher economic times for black colleges , where many students require some form of financial aid continue their education, and
- health issues such as racial disparities in cancer treatment, and higher rate of heart disease in young African-African Americans, both related in part to a lack of health insurance, less access to quality health care, and socioeconomic factors.
It's long been said that when the U.S. economy catches a cold, Black America gets pneumonia, and in the current economic downturn the diagnosis is more severe than the common cold, and the symptoms are hitting African Americans just a bit harder. Job loss is taking a greater toll among African Americans, causing many to lose ground only recently gained.
Nationally, the picture for blacks is even worse. The overall unemployment rate for blacks in February climbed to 13.4%, while the rate for black men reached 16.3%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Last hired, first fired" is an old adage in the African American community. Factory hands and the unskilled have long been whipsawed by the economy's downturns. Now layoffs are beginning to reach a once fast-growing cohort of black professionals, managers and government workers, including many who overcame discrimination and limited economic and educational opportunities to win quality jobs.
While the recession has touched virtually every industry, it has battered traditional strongholds of black employment and is threatening such secure bastions as public education and government services.
Nationally, the troubled auto industry, which has been particularly welcoming to African Americans, has slashed tens of thousands of high-paying, unionized positions. Retail, services and manufacturing, which disproportionately hire blacks, have slumped.
The growing layoffs among higher-paid African Americans and steep foreclosure rates in their neighborhoods are dealing a crippling blow to the nation's black middle class, community leaders say.
And this is in an economy where the first generation to achieve middle class status is having trouble passing the benefits on to their children.
Nearly half of African Americans born to middle-income parents in the late 1960s plunged into poverty or near-poverty as adults, according to a new study -- a perplexing finding that analysts say highlights the fragile nature of middle-class life for many African Americans.
Overall, family incomes have risen for both blacks and whites over the past three decades. But in a society where the privileges of class and income most often perpetuate themselves from generation to generation, black Americans have had more difficulty than whites in transmitting those benefits to their children.
This troubling picture of black economic evolution is contained in a package of three reports being released today by the Pew Charitable Trusts that test the vitality of the American dream. Using a nationally representative data source that for nearly four decades has tracked people who were children in 1968, researchers attempted to answer two questions: Do Americans generally advance beyond their parents in terms of income? How much is that affected by race and gender?
The crisis in the auto industry, and the plight of African American dealers in particular illustrates the circumstances many African Americans are facing in this economy, as their first foothold in the American Middle class crumbles away.
Since the 1970s, General Motors has led the way in providing opportunities for minorities to own car dealerships. The automaker pioneered special training programs and put money behind candidates for new dealerships.
Now, after almost four decades of slow but steady progress, minority dealers are increasingly worried that the latest wave of GM cuts could erode any gains. As part of its latest restructuring, GM yesterday said it planned to slash about 2,600, or 40 percent, of its 6,200 dealerships. GM currently has about 240 minority dealers.
...Even during good times, minority dealers struggled. Their problems have centered around insufficient capital and being placed in poor locations by the companies. The recession has brought on plummeting sales and tight credit markets, exacerbating the dealers' troubles.
Peggy Cockerham, the African American owner of Franklin Pontiac-Buick-GMC outside Nashville, said minorities are having increasing difficulty finding capital to keep their businesses afloat through rocky economic periods.
"Minority dealers don't have the second-generation and third-generation dollars they can pull from," Cockerham said. "After all this is done, the opportunities will remain with the same group of old-line wealthy dealers. Unless we are very careful -- unless we get manufacture support -- we will eliminate our minority dealers."
So, what's to be done? How much can be done? How much should be done? And by whom? How these questions are answered depends upon everything from political philosophy to historical perspective, both of which collide at the present point, where the gains made by African-Americans since landing on this continent just shy of 400 years ago -- from "boy" to Mr. President, from "girl" to "First Lady," and from owned assets to finally owning assets -- are at once reflected in White House, and being reversed in African-American homes, neighborhoods and communities.
It's at that collision of politics, history and present reality that we'll have to answer these questions and create solutions to all of the above (and more), if we are to make it the rest of the way to the America that many have believed and many of us still do believe can be.
But first, we have to have a more honest discussion about race in America. And, if we are only part of the way towards being the kind of country that Martin Luther King and so many others dreamed of -- believed in with an intensity that propelled towards being the kind of country that would elect a Barack Obama to the presidency -- we are still clearly only part of the way towards having that most necessary discussion.
We're are further along than we were, but we haven't yet gone far enough. The question is: Why?