After five years of nonstop bad news regarding African-American unemployment, the Obama administration was finally able to celebrate some good news last month, or so it seemed. In July, African-American unemployment dipped to 12.6 percent, a small but significant change from June's 13.7 percent unemployment rate – and substantially lower than the high of 16.5 percent that it reached in January 2010.
But any celebration was likely short-lived. While the national unemployment rate decreased slightly in August, to 7.3 percent, reaching a five-year low, that same month, African-American unemployment rose to 13 percent.
So at this point, who exactly is to blame for the seemingly unshakable epidemic of unemployment in the African-American community? Bob Woodson, an African-American conservative, generated headlines for his fiery speech at a Republican National Committee luncheon commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. During his address he argued that when it comes to policy and progress, all other demographic groups have taken precedence over poor African Americans.
"Everybody has come in front of them on the bus – gays, immigrants, women, environmentalists," Woodson said. "You never hear any talk about the conditions confronting poor blacks and poor people in general."
Though his language may have been more pointed, Woodson merely gave voice to a criticism levied specifically at the Obama administration by many African Americans – namely that in the quest for re-election, President Barack Obama and his allies focused less on achieving solid policy deliverables to those demographics already most likely to vote for him and instead focused on delivering for those groups who needed more convincing.
Reinforcing the notion that the president prioritized the needs of other communities before those of the community that supported him the most in both elections are his own words. In a 2009 interview with reporter April Ryan, when asked about the criticism that African Americans – particularly unemployed ones – were being forgotten by the first African American elected president, Obama replied, "So, we have made a series of steps that make a huge difference. The only thing I cannot do is, you know, by law I can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks. I'm the president of the entire United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That, in turn, is going to help lift up the African-American community."
This response was puzzling when considered against the many measures he eventually executed exclusively on behalf of another group of people: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
As I have previously written, although LGBT Americans could easily cite administration accomplishments, such as repealing "Don't ask, don't tell," ordering the Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and appointing more openly gay elected officials than any other president, African Americans could not cite such a list.
Gay Americans found the most devoted LGBT-rights advocate the Oval Office has ever known, and immigrants also found an ally in the White House who was committed to immigration reform, an issue of particular importance to the Latino community. Yet African Americans have long looked a lot like an afterthought.
But does that mean Republicans could do any better?
History paints a mixed picture. According to an analysis in Forbes, when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1980, African-American unemployment hovered at 14.5 percent. (Perhaps as a nod to these poor numbers, Reagan received double-digit support from African-American voters.) But African-American voters did not fare much better under the Reagan presidency. African-American unemployment stood at 14.3 percent when he faced re-election in 1984, although that number was an improvement over the nearly 20 percent of African Americans who were unemployed at one point in Reagan's first term.
African-American unemployment was much better, but still in the double digits, at 10.3 percent in November 1988, when Republican George H.W. Bush defeated Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis. But it was at 13.7 percent when Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton defeated the first President Bush. African-American unemployment was back down to 10 percent in November 1996 when President Clinton defeated Republican Sen. Bob Dole.
African-American unemployment was at an all-time low in 2000, dipping into the single digits. Though Vice President Al Gore was part of the administration responsible for such numbers, he ultimately won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College to George W. Bush. The numbers would creep just above 10 percent in 2004, and the second President Bush would defeat Sen. John Kerry. The numbers returned to the single digits in 2008 during President Bush's final year in office, before the economic crisis would send them skyrocketing again in 2009, President Obama's first year in office. They have remained a seemingly unsolvable problem since.
When asked for comment on the current rate of unemployment among African Americans, a spokesman for the RNC replied, "As the unemployment rate for African Americans continues to tick upward, this president is still pushing policies that undermine job and wealth creation in our communities."
The RNC spokesman also referenced the importance of lower taxes for small-business owners to spur hiring and added that the Obama administration "has massively increased the regulations that are designed to protect entrenched interests but prevent emerging black businesses from growing and thriving."
Of course a White House official begged to differ, saying, "Though there are signs that the economy is making progress, the president remains deeply concerned about the uneven recovery and unacceptably high unemployment in the African-American community. That is why he remains committed to addressing income inequality and job creation in our hardest-hit communities around the country."
The official, who asked to remain anonymous, also told The Root, "The president has taken several steps to strengthen the economy for all Americans, build ladders of opportunity for those striving to get into the middle class, make college more affordable to level the playing field, pushed for quality health care, took legal action to stop predatory mortgage lending and announced initiatives to invest in the hardest-hit neighborhoods around the country."
Although Republicans expressed the need for lower taxes for business owners to spur job opportunities for African Americans, Democrats have a different take on the kind of tax policy needed to help the African-American community. The White House official cited the extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which have ultimately benefited more than 2.2 million African Americans, as a key administration accomplishment benefiting communities of color. The official also pointed to the administration's role in facilitating more than $14 billion in contracts and capital to minority-owned business.
But most of all, the Obama administration points to heavy investments in higher education for minorities, including doubling Pell Grants and increasing investments in HBCUs.
Education certainly plays a key role in determining long-term career success. But the administration's thin record of specific accomplishments in the area of African-American job growth, as well as the lack of specifics cited by the RNC, seems to indicate that the ongoing jobs crisis among African-Americans may have less to do with the failure of the first African-American elected president than with our society's failure to address the underlying issues.
Neither the RNC nor the White House mentioned some of the additional hurdles that
African Americans face in the jobs market: A labor report from the Center for American Progress found that African-American employees tend to be the last hired and first fired. And I have previously written about other documented cases of intrinsic racial bias in the interview and hiring process, including the fact that those with more ethnic-sounding names are less likely to be interviewed.
So does this mean that when it comes to unemployment in the African-American community, all is hopeless? No. It does mean, however, that the only way to address the issue is to speak honestly about it. Whichever party does that first – Democrats or Republicans – will be judged most successful in leading the African-American community out of this crisis.
(Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.)