Not Yet at the Promised Land

Over the past week, Americans — and people around the world — rightfully celebrated the breakthrough election of an African-American to be President of the United States.

Barack Obama’s election signals a significant shift in U.S. racial attitudes, especially among younger people. Obama received a higher portion of the white vote than Democratic candidate John Kerry did in 2004 — in fact, he won a higher share (43 percent) than any Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Obama won a strong majority of white voters under age 29 (beating McCain 54-44).

Such a performance by a Black candidate was very hard to imagine even two years ago.

But as epochal as is Obama’s victory, celebrations of racial progress — especially among Whites — need be tempered by an acknowledgement of other racial realities.

The United States has not reached the promised land of racial equality and justice.

Consider this set of extraordinary statistics:

+ The U.S. unemployment rate for Whites in October was 5.3 percent. For Latinos, it was 8.8 percent. For African-Americans, 11.1 percent. [1]

+ African-Americans’ median income is about 80 percent of Whites. Latinos make about 72 percent of Whites’ median income. [2] The median White household income in 2007 was $54,920. For Blacks, it was $33,916. For Latinos, $38,679. [3]

+ White households have 10 times more wealth than Black households. Median household wealth for Whites is $118,300; for Blacks, it is $11,800 (2004 data). [4]

+ Whites have more than 100 times the financial wealth of Blacks. Median financial wealth for Whites is $36,100, for Blacks $300 (2004 data). [5]

+ The African-American poverty rate is three times higher than the rate for Whites. Poverty rates: Whites, 8.2 percent; Blacks, 24.5 percent; Latinos, 21.5 percent. [6]

+ Child poverty rates track the overall poverty ratios. About one in 10 White children live in poverty (10.5 percent). For African-Americans, the figure is 33.2 percent. For Latinos, 28.9 percent (2004 data). [7]

+ Three quarters of White families own their home. Less than half of Blacks and Latinos own their home. [8]

+ The percentage of Whites with a bachelor’s or more advanced degree is 30.5. For African-Americans, it is 17.7. For Latinos, 12 percent. Two-and-a-half times more Whites have PhDs or professional degrees than Blacks or Latinos. And education is among the social indicators where the Black-White disparity is closing fastest. [9]

+ The African-American infant mortality rate is 2.4 times the rate for Whites. [10]

+ African-American children are exposed to unsafe lead levels two-and-a-half times the rate for White children (2002 data). [11]

+ The incarceration rate for African-Americans is 4.8 times higher than for Whites. For Latinos, it is 1.6 times higher than for Whites. [12]

The economic crisis will make almost all of these numbers worse. Unemployment and poverty rates will go up for everyone, but jump the most for Blacks and Latinos. African-American wealth is being decimated. While they don’t have much in the stock market, on average, African American wealth is concentrated in housing stock that is declining in value, and African Americans were disproportionately lured into predatory and unsustainable subprime loans. Cutbacks in social services will disproportionately hurt Black and Latino families.

What can be done to close these gaps, so that the remarkable story of Barack Obama signals not just a cultural shift, but helps drive a reduction in wealth and income inequality?

The good news in this story is that the best hope lies in many of the policies needed to address the economic crisis and economic insecurity. A massive increase in government spending in public works, energy efficiency and renewable energy will create good jobs employing people of all colors. Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act will enable workers to join unions without having to face employer intimidation. Unions raise up worker wages (and improve quality of worklife, among other crucial benefits), thereby reducing inequality. And adoption of a single-payer health system — a Medicare for All plan that provides every person with access to quality healthcare while eliminating costly bureaucratic waste — would reduce healthcare disparities.

Will the Obama administration deliver on these policy goals? Unfortunately, while Obama has promised healthcare reform, he has not supported a single-payer plan. There are very hopeful signs that he will push a massive public investment plan. And he supports the Employee Free Choice Act, though passage is definitely not assured.

Perhaps a better question than asking whether the Obama administration will deliver on these policy goals is: Will the outpouring of civic energy that elected the first African-American President in the United States now be channeled to overcome the forces of reaction and the status quo?

Like the civil rights movement, Obama’s election reminds us again what a mobilized public can achieve.

[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[3] U.S. Census, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007.”

[4] Economic Policy Institute, State of Working America 2008/2009.

[5] Economic Policy Institute, State of Working America 2008/2009.

[6] U.S. Census, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007.”

[7] Children’s Defense Fund, “State of America’s Children, 2005.”

[8] U.S. Census.

[9] National Center for Education Statistics, “Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Minorities.”

[10] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Recent Trends in Infant Mortality in the United States, National Center for Health Statistics.”

[11] Children’s Defense Fund, “Improving Children’s Health: Understanding Children’s Health Disparities and Promising Approaches to Address Them.”

[12] Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.

Mordor Brightens; Obama’s Challenge — And Ours

Good morning, America. Hello, world.

Yes, the skies over Mordor are now brightening.*

There is an almost palpable, physical sense of relief with the confirmation that the end of the Bush era is at hand.

And the election of an African American to the highest office in the land is an act of racial redemption that was almost unimaginable two years ago.

But we have a long way to go to escape from the Dark Days.

Capped by eight years of unchecked corporate predation, three decades of maniacal gifting to the corporate sector — improperly characterized as “free market” policies — has left the United States, and the world, in a very dangerous place.

The most acute problem — and the test that may well determine the character of the Obama administration, and whether it succeeds or fails — is the deepening recession. The financial crisis has made the recession worse, and poses enormous hazards and challenges of its own. The underlying problem is not the financial crisis, however, but the recession induced by the popping of the housing bubble. Calming the financial markets will not solve the economic problem, and the financial markets will not truly regain their footing until the economy is set back on a sensible course.

Responding to the worsening recession will require a massive program of public expenditure. The scale of the economic crisis requires a commensurate public outlay. Economists Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research suggest additional U.S. spending of more $300 billion to $400 billion, and even more may quite possibly be required.

Of course, these astronomical sums seem more digestible after Congress agreed to spend $700 billion on the Wall Street bailout, but they will require a break from misguided prevailing orthodoxy** about the importance of balanced budgets.

It’s not that hard to figure out where these funds should go. They should expand unemployment insurance, and support state and local governments experiencing major revenue shortfalls as tax collections decline because of reduced economic activity. And they should be invested to meet pressing infrastructure and especially transformative clean energy needs.

It is conventional wisdom that infrastructure investments take too long to organize to be responsive to an economic slowdown. But many projects can be quickly and easily jumpstarted; the depth of the recession means that government stimulus will be needed for some time; and, with sufficient political will, even major energy projects — first among them, a major retrofitting of old buildings to increase energy efficiency — can be initiated quickly.

To succeed, Obama will have to deliver more aggressive policies than those on which he campaigned. Obama campaigned on a platform of a $50 billion “jumpstart” to the economy; a $150 billion investment over 10 years in energy and green technology; and $60 billion over 10 years for a transportation infrastructure investment bank.

These amounts are not close to sufficient. But there was evidence in the last months of the campaign that the Obama team perceives the depth of the crisis, and the absence of alternatives to major public expenditures.

In his book Obama’s Challenge, economic journalist Robert Kuttner rightfully argues that the choice for Obama is to be bold or to fail.

“On the recovery front, a failure to mount a program of large-scale public outlay would leave the economy in a self-deepening recession. And a program that continued the Bush administration’s ad hoc bailouts of failing banks without radical regulatory reform would simply invite the next round of bubbles, crashes and bailouts. As financial conditions worsen and ordinary business profits dwindle, the economic goes into a classic, self-deepening downward spiral.” This particular recession is more serious than most because of the collapse of housing prices, the financial crisis and the massive indebtedness of families and many businesses.

The choice, he argues, is transformation or stagnation.

Kuttner emphasizes the importance of leadership. He reads into Obama great potential for shifting ideological frameworks, and preparing the country for transformative economic initiatives.

Leadership will undoubtedly be important, especially in the early days of the administration.

But equally significant in the short-term — and more important over time — will be public demands. The Obama campaign generated an outpouring of civic energy not witnessed in the United States for two generations. The millions of people who invested their time and hope in Barack Obama now owe it to themselves and to Obama to invest more — this time to demand that he be all they hoped, and all the country and the world desperately need.

* For those not familiar with the reference, Mordor is the realm of the evil Sauron in J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

** Even as I prepare to post this column, NPR’s Steve Inskeep is asking Nevada Senator Harry Reid which of Obama’s stated priorities he’ll have to abandon, given fiscal pressures, or whether he’ll just trim all of them.