Edward Wyckoff Williams, Political Analyst
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Voters have twice elected an African-American president, and Republicans have twice responded with obstinance — by waging an intellectual civil war. Voter-suppression efforts were insufficient to deliver a Romney victory, but strategically gerrymandered districts guaranteed that Speaker John Boehner and his Republican-dominated House could continue to serve as the proverbial thorn in Obama’s side.
The sequester measure — first designed as a way to force both political parties to agree on a grand bargain of budget cuts and new revenues — is now being used to stifle momentum gained from the president’s re-election victory and effectively redirect the political discourse away from gun control and immigration reform and toward spending cuts and smaller government. As a result, billions in automatic cuts to defense and discretionary spending took effect on March 1, after GOP members in Congress refused to negotiate on what economists are calling a “stupid” and “irresponsible” way to govern the world’s largest economy.
Who will this affect the most? Black, Brown, poor and working-class families still struggling to find work and wrestling with unresolved mortgage debts.
This is where the sequester crosses the color line. African-Americans remain disproportionately unemployed and underemployed — at a rate of 13.2 percent, nearly double the 6.8 percent unemployment rate of their White counterparts. During the 2012 presidential campaign, the issue was hotly debated. Republicans saw it as a way to dissuade Obama’s most loyal constituency, arguing that his economic policies had failed to benefit them. The GOP’s aim was to breed apathy and discourage enough Blacks from turning out to vote.
Democrats instead highlighted the steady drop in Black unemployment — from its recession high of 16.7 percent — and reminded voters of the consequences of returning to Bush-era economic policies. But the truth is, the 2-to-1 disparity wasn’t caused by George W. Bush or the Great Recession — it has existed since 1972, the first year the data tracking began. The recession only exacerbated the problem.
Racial discrimination was traditionally considered the reason for such disparity, but researchers have found that the problems affecting African-Americans have compounded. Systemic poverty, lack of educational opportunity and corporate glass ceilings have all worked in tandem to create a crippling cycle of lack and want. Discrimination, therefore, isn’t the simple explanation it once was, and affirmative action is wholly insufficient to address the widening chasm. One disparity leads to another, and new barriers are created.
As Michael Fletcher pointed out in the Washington Post, Blacks suffer most from weaker social networks — lacking the right connections and facilitated access to job opportunity. In a nation whose explicit domestic policy had been to deny rights, benefits and access on the basis of race, a de facto affirmative advantage for whites emerged. The result is that the racial gap exists regardless of educational achievement or occupation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate for African-American college graduates was 7.1 percent in 2011, while the rate for Whites was 3.9 percent. Whites with only a high school diploma had an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent, compared with 15.5 percent for Blacks. And in construction jobs — hardest hit by the mortgage crisis — Blacks endured a jobless rate of 30.4 percent, compared with 15.3 percent for whites.
The deep public-sector cuts still being demanded by Republicans will only make the problem worse.
Once unemployed, African-Americans are less likely to find jobs, and they stay unemployed much longer. In 2011, Blacks experienced a median duration of unemployment of 27 weeks, compared with 19.7 weeks for Whites and 18.5 weeks for Hispanics. As periods of unemployment extend, gaining viable employment becomes more difficult. Applicants may lack the resources, connections and income support to even pursue opportunities. And employers often consider credit scores and last date of employment as screens for job candidates, placing an added burden on those already at a disadvantage.
For those whose families rely on programs like WIC — designed to aid children and mothers — $543 million could be lost, affecting the 450,000 people of color on assistance. Likewise, since 2010, $2.5 billion has been cut from housing-assistance programs like Section 8, which aids the poor and elderly. Data from 2008 showed that 44 percent of those recipients were Black.
This is President Obama’s catch-22: trying to deliver on campaign promises to his most loyal supporters while fielding a Republican opposition indifferent to his constituency. As the GOP fights to protect tax loopholes for the wealthiest, the Black and Brown voters the party lost in the last election suffer as a kind of quiet retribution. And as the systemic nature of unemployment, underemployment and discrimination creates a 21st-century underclass, neither political party has the courage to discuss the issue in Black and White.