by Mychal Denzel Smith, guardian.co.uk
When pressed about whether or not he feels an obligation to address the crisis of black unemployment, President Obama has supplied a reliably consistent answer over the past four years: a rising tide lifts all boats. That is to say, he is of the belief that as the economy gets better overall, it would certainly get better for black people, as well.
And the economy has done better. Recovery has been slow and growth modest, but the answer to “are we better-off than we were four years ago?” is definitely “yes”. That is, if you’re talking overall. For black people, the answer may be, “eh, not really”.
The national unemployment rate has gone down to 7.9%, but for black people, it remains stuck in the teens – having gone up in the last jobs report before the election from 13.4% to 14.3%. This is because black job-seekers have to contend with something that does not come up in the Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly jobs report: racism.
Take, for example, the story of Yolanda Spivey. Writing for Techyville, Spivey tells of job-searching online with the popular Monster.com – with zero luck. Identifying as a black woman, Spivey says she did not receive a single response to her resume. Later, she posted a resume identical to her own, but under the name Bianca White – this time, identifying as a white woman.
She received a phone call the very same day, and watched offers for interviews come in abundance via email and telephone the next day.
Spivey’s experiment is not unlike the studies that show it is easier for a white man with a criminal record to be called back for a job interview than it is for a black man without one. The biggest difference, of course, is gender: we have a tendency to focus on the experiences of black men, while little is made of the racism black women face, in the economy or otherwise. Although Spivey’s is only one story, it points to the struggles black women have faced during both the great recession and the recovery.
At the end of 2011, it stood that black women were losing more jobs during the recovery than had been lost during the recession. It’s not hard to figure out why: as the private sector added jobs, more than 4m as the president reminded us throughout the long campaign, the public sector has steadily cut jobs. In fact, there has been a net loss of 1m public sector jobs since Obama took office – the worst three years on record for public sector job losses – as compromises with his Republican opponents have meant the slashing of funds at the federal, state, and local levels.
Not only has this meant a slower recovery, but it has also meant that those jobs that have traditionally been a means for black people, especially black women, to enter the middle class have disappeared. Around 40% of the public sector jobs lost have been in local government education, where teachers, librarians, guidance counselors, administrators, and more have seen their jobs vanish. This is field dominated by women, and has been a safe bet for black women seeking employment.
It’s no accident that during September of this year, when the public sector actually added 10,000 jobs, all of the job gains that were made by black people belonged to black women. Left solely to the private sector, more black women, contending with racism and sexism in hiring, would likely report stories like Spivey’s. The public sector has offered, not full equality, but a reprieve from despair. This recession and recovery has been anything but.
If there’s any group that is owed “gifts”, as Mitt Romney would put it, from the Obama administration, it is black women. More than any other identity group, black women gave their support to the president on election, with 96% of their vote going to Obama. That should be more than enough to make a few demands, and it would not be counterintuitive to think that high on the list would be the passage of the American Jobs Act, or some version of that bill, which would save public sector jobs.
Also, the wage gap should be addressed, via the Paycheck Fairness Act, as black women still only make 64 cents for every dollarthat white men make. And as affirmative action faces an uphill battle in the US supreme court, the White House could make more efforts to crack down on discriminatory hiring practices having a negative impact on the economic security of black women.
These measures are the least the administration could do, spending a bit of political capital accrued via the election on legislation that would be beneficial to their most loyal constituency.
Racism isn’t going away anytime soon. To extend the metaphor, the rising tide can’t lift all boats if there are some sailors determined to make sure there are others who don’t even have the opportunity to get their feet on the deck. This is the project of governing: to ensure that, even as bigotry and discrimination survive, no group is denied the right to pursue their ambitions.
Few have felt the sting of thwarted aspiration so sharply as black women have, but there is a hope we can give to Yolanda Spivey, and others like her, that we are working toward a more equal society.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012
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