United States

Black Delusion in the Age of Obama

A Presentation by Glen Ford to the January 23, 24 Black is Back Organizing Conference
held in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Uhuru! You’re going to have to bear with me on this presentation because it contains a lot of numbers and that doesn’t roll typically off the tongue. But numbers are facts. And I want to talk about facts this evening. When we talk about facts, there are facts that we can measure, and then there are the facts that people believe in and that they act upon. And so even if these facts aren’t true, they are for us facts nonetheless because people act like they’re true. And we have to deal with their behavior. So we must also deal, when we talk about dealing with facts, with people’s beliefs. We have to confront our own people’s beliefs even if, and especially if, those beliefs are total nonsense.

I think it’s a cruel irony and a great trick of history that even as finance capital implodes right in front of our eyes, and as Black America faces its greatest economic crisis in generations—when objective conditions of the day cry out for clarity so that we can see and know what we’re doing—we’re confronted with a president whose very presence, literally, messes up many of our people’s minds. It renders them, on occasion, incapable of correctly perceiving the reality that they are, in fact, living through. This is some very cool historical mischief that we have to deal with. But it’s important to—and although it’s a depressing subject—it’s one we have to confront because we are organizers here and those facts of people’s nonsensical beliefs are facts we have to confront.

The Black is Back Coalition is a political organization and so we must move among our people by dealing with not just the objective facts, but with our people’s perception of reality. And we even have to deal with their delusions.

So I’m going to start off with a terrifying Black economic fact and it comes straight out of last week’s newspapers. After examining those objective facts, we’ll look at the delusional perceptions that fly in the face of those facts.

Last week, the Economic Policy Institute released a study that projects Black unemployment—the official figure—will officially reach 17.2 percent by the third quarter of this year. In five states, Black unemployment is projected to exceed 20 percent. Those states are Alabama, Illinois, Ohio, South Carolina and Michigan. And in Michigan, it’s projected to reach 27 percent. And we know that it’s already higher than that in Detroit, officially.

These facts are based on the way the federal government measures unemployment. And that means they are gross underestimates of real unemployment. Because they’re based on who actually shows up at a job center in four weeks. They underestimate everybody who is discouraged in the job market. Blacks—we know this from studies, of course we know it from our daily lives as well—Blacks stay unemployed much, much longer than whites. They have far more reason to be discouraged than whites. And far more of us never, in fact, even enter the formal job market. Plus there is the huge population of Blacks in prison. Prison inmates are not counted as unemployed. And in some communities, at any given time, that figure exceeds 20 percent of the Black, male, working-age population. So that is a built-in undercount—a huge one.

The more accurate way to measure real unemployment is to count the percentage of the working-age population who are actually holding a job—a legal job—and that’s called, the rate of participation in the labor force. A study of that kind—the rate of participation study—was done in New York City about five years ago. And remember, New York City is not one of the worse labor markets for Blacks in the country. That study found that only around 50 percent of Black men were working. Chicago had similar numbers. And this was all before the current economic collapse. What that means is, in those five states where Black official unemployment is projected to go above 20 percent—which is a lot higher than the official rate was in New York when the real Black, male unemployment rate was set at 50 percent.

We’ll be looking at places where majorities of Black men do not have real jobs—in those five states and plenty more localities all across the country. The Economic Policy Institute study also showed that the gap between Black male and Black female unemployment is getting larger—and very quickly getting much larger. And we all know what that means in terms of Black family dissolution. But these facts get even worse. Blacks are also becoming unemployed at a far faster rate than whites. That is, our crisis is moving forward much more quickly than among white people.

From the beginning of the current recession, which they date to September of 2007, to the third quarter of this year, white unemployment will have gone up five percent. Black unemployment will have gone up 8.6 percent. And Black people were already living at depression levels in 2007 when we started that count. So we see that there is an even deeper bottom that is falling out of the Black job market. That study was based on facts. And the numbers were derived from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Based on those facts, the headline for the story of the Economic Policy Institute’s research said, “U.S. unemployment Rate for Blacks Projected to Hit 25 Year High.” That same week another story appeared based on a study by the Pew Research Center. That’s an international, well-respected research organization. That study reports that, “Black assessments about the state of Black progress in America have improved more dramatically than at any time in the last quarter-century.” Those two headlines in the same week. So, on one hand, we have Black unemployment to reach a 25-year high, and on the other hand, we have Black assessments of Black progress at…25-year high! So we are in the midst of a great disconnect.

Black perceptions and Black reality are in absolute conflict. They are diametrically opposed. Now we know that much of this revolves around—guess who—Barack Obama. And it is true that most of the Pew Research Center’s questions dealt with feelings and not with facts. But some of those questions dealt with real facts—or about what Black people thought the real facts were. And they show that many of our people—majorities of our people—have allowed their feelings, their wishful, sometimes deluded feelings, to warp their assessment of some very basic facts about the Black condition. The Pew study was conducted on 812 Black respondents. It was done in November of 2009. The polls—Pew’s polls—have been around for decades. They have been asking basically the same questions year after year. So that means they have a big base of data to compare it to.

One of the most striking responses in that poll came to the question, “Has the gap in the standard of living of Blacks and whites become smaller in the last ten years?” That’s a very straightforward question. It’s not about feelings, it’s about money! Because this is America and your standard of living is your income. When that question was asked in 2007, 41 percent of Black’s said, “Yes, the gap between Black living standards and white living standards is shrinking compared to ten years ago.” That was a minority of Black people, but a big minority—it was 41 percent. When that same question was asked this past November—56 percent of Blacks believed that the gap in the living standards of Blacks and whites had gotten smaller than ten years ago. That was a solid majority. It was 15 percent higher than only two years ago.

So we have to ask, what happened between 2007 and 2009? Obama happened! And the 41 percent who thought back in 2007 that the racial living-standard gap had shrunk in the previous ten years, was wrong. And the 56 percent who thought the same thing in 2009 were even more wrong! The reality was exactly the opposite.

The smallest the Black/white income gap has ever been was in Bill Clinton’s second term as president. That’s when we had those multiple bubble-booms—the Internet boom, the stock boom, a whole bunch of booms. By the year 2000, Black households were earning 64.8 cents for every dollar a white household made. That’s the furthest extent in history of our comparative income progress. That’s as far as we’ve ever come—64.8 cents. By 2008 Black household income was down to 61.8 cents on the white dollar—a loss of three cents. And that 61.8 cents in 2008 was virtually the same as the gap between Blacks and whites in 1989 and in 1979! So, the gap has been growing over the last 10 or 12 years. And except for that three-cent blip under Clinton, the gap has remained unchanged for the last 30 years.

So, what can we conclude from these numbers—between the perceptions and the reality? It seems that by 2007 the larger American propaganda machine had convinced a 41 percent large minority of Black people that Blacks, as a group, were materially better off than they were during the brief period not long ago when they actually were better off by three cents on the dollar. And this occurred even after going through the first Bush recession and “no jobs for Blacks folks” recovery. And when the second recession was starting and the Black housing foreclosure crisis had already begun, we had already lost three cents by 2007. Two years later, in November of last year, foreclosures have laid waste to Black neighborhoods. And unemployment is through the roof. And yet a solid majority this time, of Blacks, believe that we were materially better off—gaining, in fact, on white people. I think it’s important to point out that this great disconnect between our peoples’ wishful misperceptions, which has been even more wildly exaggerated in the age of Obama, and the objective reality that actually shapes our lives is testimony to something very serious going on in Black heads. That is a great problem for activists—for organizers—for people who want to create a movement.

Lies are always an enemy of the people and the friend of our enemies. The first rule is, tell no lies and allow no lies to be told. I want to make it clear that our people are not at fault in this. They have been victimized by lies that they want to be true. Most of all, they want to believe that something they think they caused to happen, and that is the rise of Barack Obama, has produced material benefits for Black people. People desperately want to believe that. First, that they caused Barack Obama to become president and second, that it has produced material benefits—real measurable gains—like money for Black people.

All peoples want to feel that they have agency—that they are controlling events. So this little talk this evening is not about badmouthing our people. The truth that we are worse off in terms of income than ten years ago, and no better off than 20 and 30 years ago, is psychologically very painful to people. It is even more psychologically painful for our people to contemplate that the Black president works for the rich, white bankers. That is excruciating mental pain. Our job, however, is to tell the truth and create the political conditions in which Black people can exercise true agency over their own lives. And that can only be achieved through struggle, never by wishful thinking and making up facts that don’t exist. And the truth is Black people have been given the impression that they are materially better off than ten years ago by a relentless media barrage about Black progress. We hear it every day on every channel, in every newspaper, in every way. Blacks are making progress. Blacks are making progress. Blacks are making progress. The aim of that wall-to-wall propaganda is to declare that the struggle is over, or that the struggle should be over. Barack Obama’s election is put forward as the final proof of that.

So we see that these lies about Black material progress, which are sweet to the ears of so many of our people, are designed to snuff out our people’s struggle for actual self-determination and real material progress. As bad as it is that Black household incomes are stuck at 1979 levels, the Black wealth situation has become even more catastrophic with the Black home-foreclosure disaster. We’re witnessing the greatest loss of Black wealth since slavery. United for a Fair Economy—their annual report says—Black wealth is now 10 cents on the dollar of white median household wealth. But that figure is certainly too high. That’s because the data on Black home-foreclosures is not yet in. That tsunami has not crested yet. The data are incomplete because the federal government does not keep racial figures on home foreclosures. The feds do keep track, by race, of mortgages, but not of foreclosures.

We know that in some metropolitan areas Blacks make up to 60 percent and more of subprime mortgages. And I said, metropolitan areas, and that means we’re talking about much whider definitions of space than a city. Typically, a majority Black city like a DC, or an Atlanta, the statistical metropolitan area for that will be 20 or 25 percent Black. So to have 60 percent of the subprime mortgages allotted to Blacks is a huge number.

We know that these mortgages were designed to fail. So the number of Black households that have entered the negative growth category in recent years has certainly, dramatically increased, although it’s difficult to get a hard figure on it. That means that the statistic that Black median household wealth is only 10 percent of whites’, is certainly out of date and it is certainly too high. But even if the foreclosure catastrophe had not happened, at the rate Black wealth was increasing incrementally, in the middle of this decade, according to United for a Fair Economy, it would have taken a couple of thousand years for Black household wealth to achieve parity with whites—thousands of years. And that’s when we were not losing ground.

Clearly, Black economic parity cannot come from incremental increases in Black home ownership. That has never been in the cards. And so we must do, as the People’s Organization for Progress does, and lay the crime at the banks’ feet. We should demand that the corporate executives that committed this massive fraud and theft be prosecuted criminally—not civilly—criminally. And we must politically indict Barack Obama for rewarding Wall Street. For making available to finance capital 23.7 trillion dollars—23.7 trillion dollars! That figure, which is approaching twice the gross domestic product of the United States comes directly from the inspector general of the federal government’s own Troubled Assets Relief Program. That’s not our figure, that’s the government’s figure.

It essentially means that under Barack Obama, Wall Street has swallowed the American state whole! That, not the election of a Black president, is the great historical event of 2009—the swallowing whole of the state. But as we politically indict all the guilty parties in Black home foreclosures, we must also point out that it is Black people who are owed. And the debt to Black people keeps getting bigger. And we, our organizations, must provide leadership in demonstrating that mass, Black political action is the only way that debt gets paid. Thank you.

Transcribed by Bonnie Weinstein from video, February 4, 2010