Black America: Sinking to a New ‘Bottom?’

By Glen Ford

Corporate economists have lately grown fond of saying the economy is “turning the corner,” but for African Americans, it’s shaping up as a long and very scary ride downhill. Official labor statistics show Black unemployment rose to 16.5 percent in March, up from 15.8 percent the month before, while white joblessness remained steady at 8.8 percent. The figures are in line with the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute’s prediction that Black unemployment will hit 17.2 percent by the third quarter of this year—the highest level in a quarter century.1 Not only is the Great Recession nowhere near over for Black America, there are indications that the contorted economy is finding a new “bottom” for African Americans to inhabit.

When the previous bottom fell out, Blacks fell farther and faster than whites, Asians and Latinos, and from an even more precarious economic position. As Dedrick Muhammad, of United for a Fair Economy reported in February 2009, “African Americans never emerged2 from the 2001 recession.” Black households lost additional ground to whites and Latinos between 2000 and 2005 and were plummeting in real and relative terms even before the economy “officially” went off the cliff in December 2007. When the crash came, the “Black” economy entered unknown territory, where previous patterns of relative Black-white employment prospects—as bad as they were—may no longer apply.

The sheer speed with which Black joblessness soared into the deep double digits since the official beginning of the recession indicates how tenuous is the Black connection to an economy stripped of all pretense of fairness and reciprocity. If national Black unemployment reaches 17.2 percent in the late summer, as the Economic Policy Institute predicts, that will represent an exact doubling of Black joblessness since December 2007.

Experts offer a variety of reasons that Blacks are losing ever more ground in the labor market, from lack of access to transportation to the oft-cited gaps in preparedness for the “new economy.” But none adequately explains the speed and scope of the implosion of Black job prospects. My own sense is that both old and newer factors have combined to create a perfect storm of racial disadvantage—and the possibility of a continuing African American unemployment spiral that will reset the meters on the Black misery index.

In addition to the myriad disadvantages Black labor has endured for generations, the constant erosion of workers’ overall bargaining power with employers has reached such a nadir that, especially in the low wage sector, virtually nothing prevents the boss from acting out his prejudices and greed with impunity. Endemic racism in the United States ensures that every ratcheting up of employer power and prerogatives will redound to the special disadvantage of Black workers. For example, studies show rampant employer theft3 of workers’ earned wages—nearly 7 out of 10 low-wage workers report that their bosses steal from them. Not surprisingly, Blacks are robbed by bosses at three times the rate of whites.

Simply put, the more desperate workers’ circumstances become, the more critical becomes the factor of employer racism. With 5.5 job seekers for every actual job opening, according to the latest data4, employers can discriminate in favor of whites to their hearts’ content, while continuing to lower wages and working conditions. It’s easy to casually fire Black people and even easier not to hire them.

We will soon find out if a statistical “point of no return” in unemployment levels exists, from which communities cannot recover absent extraordinary assistance by a caring government. There is ample reason to believe that many Black communities had already reached such a “deeper level of Hell” before the Great Recession, with Black male participation in the job market hovering around 50 percent. At least a score of major Black population centers now register official unemployment levels nearing 25 percent, comparable to the depths of the Great Depression—and it took World War II to pull the economy out of that pit. Where is the political will to rescue Black America? Certainly not in the Obama White House.

With every successive wave of unemployment, the ranks of the Black “permanently” jobless thicken and congeal, to finally become part of the background noise of the ghetto. The process of expelling more and more Blacks from the job market entirely, is quickening. Stats show Blacks are dramatically more likely than whites to still be unemployed six months after losing a job.

Another hammer blow is coming. With states and localities in fiscal crisis virtually everywhere, African Americans face a double-whammy as disproportionate holders of public jobs and consumers of public services. Unless the federal government comes to the rescue of the states and cities, Blacks will lose hundreds of thousands of previously steady public jobs with benefits, while the poor and carless will face a hostile world all on their own.

A Local Jobs for America5 bill recently introduced in Congress would bail out state and local governments with $100 billion over two years, but there is little chance that President Obama will give more than lip service to the legislation, which is doomed to fail without the most active support of the White House.

The casino economy was (temporarily) “turned around” by the transfer of many trillions of dollars of public funds to Wall Street, mainly through the Federal Reserve. The bankster bailout was carefully captained at every critical juncture by Barack Obama, starting with his rescue of the initial bailout bill while still a candidate. Meanwhile, Black America is going down, drowning in unemployment, foreclosure, gentrification, mass incarceration and accompanying social disintegration. African Americans have the great misfortune to have invested all their political capital and energies in a president who is actively hostile to any measures that would directly address the particular Black condition, even as that condition deteriorates by the day. It’s past time that Blacks relearned a lesson6: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” We need a movement., April 7, 2010