Dan Katz looks at the impact of the economic crisis on black people in the USA and the political response of the Obama administration.
The terrible legacy of slavery, and the Jim Crow segregation which followed, still weighs heavily on black America.
In June 2010 the Equal Justice Initiative issued a report on racial discrimination in US jury selection. 135 years after the 1875 Civil Rights Act was supposed to eliminate such practices the EJI found:
“Prosecutors have struck African Americans from jury service because they appeared to have ‘low intelligence,’ wore eyeglasses, walked in a certain way [or] dyed their hair… Some district attorney’s offices explicitly train prosecutors to exclude racial minorities from jury service and teach them how to mask racial bias…
“In some communities, the exclusion of African Americans from juries is extreme. For example, in Houston County, Alabama, eight out of 10 African Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors from death penalty cases. In Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, there is no effective African American representation on the jury in 80 percent of criminal trials.”
Elsewhere in the US justice system staggering inequality continues. Over 2.3 million Americans are behind bars; if those on parole or probation are included, one in 31 of all Americans are under “correctional supervision”. America is well ahead — both in absolute numbers, and in percentage of the population — of all other countries in its willingness to jail its citizens. However one in nine black men aged 20-34 are in jail. For black women aged 35-39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 for white women in the same age group (2008, Pew Centre report).
In 2008 the black population of the United States stood at 41 million, or 13.5% of the population. Black Americans have an average life expectancy of 73.3 years, five years lower than white Americans. Black men have a life expectancy of 69.8 years, slightly less than in Nicaragua and Morocco (Fox News report, 2007).
By almost all social and economic indicators African Americans suffer very serious consequences from systematic discrimination. For example:
• In 2007, a lower percentage of black people had earned at least a high school diploma (80% against a figure of 89% for white people). More black women than black men had earned at least a degree-level qualification (16% against 14% for black men), while among non-Hispanic whites, a higher proportion of men than women had earned at least a university-level degree (25% and 24%, respectively).
• According to the 2007 US Census Bureau report, the average African American family median income was $33,916 in comparison to $54,920 for non-Hispanic white families.
• In 2007, the US Census Bureau reported that 24.5% of African Americans compared to 8.2% of non-Hispanic white people were living below the poverty level.
• In 2007, the unemployment rate for black people was twice that for non-Hispanic whites (8% and 4%, respectively).
• In 2007, 49% of African Americans in comparison to 66% of non-Hispanic whites used employer-sponsored health insurance. 24% of African Americans in comparison to 9% of non-Hispanic whites relied on public health insurance. 20% of African Americans in comparison to 10% of non-Hispanic whites were uninsured (Office of Minority Health).
• In 2005, African Americans had 2.3 times the infant mortality rate of non-Hispanic whites. African Americans accounted for 49% of HIV/AIDS cases in 2007. In 2005, African American women were 10% less likely to have been diagnosed with breast cancer, however, they were 34% more likely to die from breast cancer, compared to non-Hispanic white women. In 2005, African American men were 30% more likely to die from heart disease, as compared to non-Hispanic white men.
Jobs and poverty now
The impact of the economic crisis of the last two years is widening the gap between black and white.
“In the late 1950s, the poverty rate for all Americans was 22.4%, or nearly 40 million people. These numbers declined steadily throughout the 1960s, reaching a low of 11%, or 23 million people, in 1973. The poverty rate began to rise steadily again in 1980 [following Ronald Reagan’s Republican election victory]. By 1983, the number of poor individuals had risen to 35.3 million individuals, or 15.2%.
“In 2008, 13.2% of all persons lived in poverty [government figures calculated on the basis of a “poverty threshold” issued annually by the US Census Bureau].
“Poverty rates for black people and Hispanics greatly exceed the national average. In 2008, 24.7% of blacks and 23.2% of Hispanics were [officially] poor, compared to 8.6% of non-Hispanic whites… And 4.2 million black children, or 34% of all black children live in poverty” (University of Michigan, Poverty Centre).
At the start of the recession (at end of 2007), the unemployment rate for African Americans was 8.6%. In the two years that followed, the unemployment rate rose to 15.8%. (The rate also increased for Hispanics, from 5.8% in December 2007 to 12.9% in December 2009). The unemployment rate for white Americans was 9.2% at the end of 2009 (this rate had more than doubled over two years).
The US’s highest unemployment rate is 28% in Detroit, a city which is 83% black. The mainly black south and west Sides of Chicago are the second highest with 22%.
The number of employed people in the US labour force also fell sharply in 2009. African American employment levels are now falling at nearly 4% annually. (Asian Americans and whites saw the number of employed fall by 2.7%, while Hispanic employment levels declined by 2.3% annually).
Despite employment gains from 2001 to 2007, at the same time all groups saw a decline in employment-to-population ratio. African Americans’ share dropped 0.4 percentage points annually (more than other groups). Employment gains made during economic growth did not keep pace with population growth.
That rate of decline has dramatically increased since 2007.
As of the third quarter of 2009, Hispanics and African Americans continued to make far less per week than whites or Asian Americans. In the third quarter of 2009, Hispanics’ median weekly earnings were $527.13; African Americans’ earnings were $608.33 a week; whites made $753.19 a week; Asian Americans made $877.22 a week.
African Americans continued to have the lowest median household income: $34,345 (2008 dollars). Hispanics’ median household income was $37,913. White Americans had a median income of $55,530 (US Bureau of the Census).
In 2008 less than half of African Americans — 45.6% — had access to employer-based retirement savings, down 1.5 percentage points from 2007. Whites also saw a decline, with only 56.6% having employer-based retirement plans, down one percentage point from the year before.
The rate of homeownership also declined in 2009, and large disparities continued. The homeownership rate was 46.4% for African Americans in the third quarter of 2009, 48.7% for Hispanics, and 75% for white Americans (Bureau of the Census).
The increase in the number of black voters between the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections was about 2.1 million, rising to 16.1 million. And there was a 55% turnout rate in 2008 election from 18- to 24-year-old black people, an 8% increase from 2004.
95% of black voters voted for Obama. However not only has Obama presided over a great general increase in US poverty, unemployment and cuts, but the first black President has also studiously avoided developing any “black agenda” to deal with the disproportionate effects of the crisis on African Americans. His political outriders even argue that black voters who demand positive action for black communities should not expect it — as such action would not be demanded from a white President.
A group of pseudo black radicals, led by Al Sharpton, helped Barack Obama. These “community leaders” now have access to the White House and are worried about losing their backstairs route to influence. In as much as people like Sharpton represent any interests but their own, they rest on a layer of US black people who are now doing relatively well from US capitalism.
Obama is worried about being seen as a black President, rather than a President who happens to be black. Since the struggle to get his healthcare reforms through he has been increasingly harassed by the Republican Party and the right-wing, grassroots Tea Party movement. The Tea Party stands for cuts in state spending and taxes; some of its members have used explicitly racist language when attacking Obama. At the end of July Mark Williams was expelled from the movement for writing a “satirical letter” in which black slavery is described as a “great gig”.
Nevertheless (and despite continuing high approval ratings among black voters) Obama is preparing a backlash for himself. The impact of the crisis in the US looks set to get worse for American workers as a whole, and US black workers in particular.
Even if he wanted to, Obama will have less room to act in the future; the highpoint of his presidency has long-gone. Obama’s political position will almost certainly weaken following elections later this year and his opinion poll ratings have fallen below 50%.
Moreover, in the last year the political consensus in the US has shifted sharply against those like Obama who favour pumping money into the economy, in favour of those who back austerity and cuts. At national level the Republicans have successfully attacked Obama’s most recent stimulus package (including refusing to extend emergency unemployment benefit funding, affecting 2.5 million workers). At state level, where most states have some sort of balanced-budget law, the situation has been bad for two years and is set to get worse as federal stimulus money dries up. At least 45 states have made serious cuts in services; 30 have raised taxes.
Obama and the workers’ movement
The left is not an advisor to Obama — his administration is not left wing, nor is it sympathetic to the interests of workers, black or white. Our job is not to create a “black agenda” — at least not in the conventional sense. We want to see a workers’ movement in the US which will fight for working class interests, within which racism and the effects of discrimination are recognised and fought.
The US working class — as a whole — is being battered. The Economist (24 July) sums up the effects of the crisis on the US working class in this way: “More than half of all workers have experienced a spell of unemployment, taken a cut in pay or hours or been forced to go part-time. The typical unemployed worker has been jobless for nearly six months. Collapsing share and house prices have destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average household. Nearly six in ten Americans have cancelled or cut back on holidays. About a fifth say their mortgages are underwater. One in four of those between 18 and 29 have moved back in with parents. Fewer than half of all adults expect their children to have a higher standard of living than theirs, and more than a quarter say it will be lower.”
Black and white US workers face a stark choice: either they unite to fight these cuts or suffer the consequences. We remain: for workers’ solidarity, and an uncompromising fight against racism and for equality.