How's the White House Doing on Racial Justice?
This Dr. King Day the political focus was on the GOP contenders in South Carolina, luckily for President Obama. Watching Republicans in a red state wrestle for right-wing votes on a day dedicated to civil rights makes Dr. King’s birthday a real holiday for Democrats—but it shouldn't be. For the president too, it should be a day of accountability.
Sure, it’s fun to watch Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and the Ricks Santorum and Perry go at each other in a Fox News–hosted debate preceded by by a King Day spent making nice to corporations, Christians and the South Carolina Tea Party. The GOP’s schedule January 16, afforded the candidates plenty of time to skew Dr King’s message on independence, opportunity and equality—and the Democrats plenty of time to skewer them for it. Contrary to GOP myth, social programs are not necessarily anti-social, rejoin the Dems. Safety nets aren’t actually devised to trap people, and so forth.
For Democrats it’s fish-in-barrel season. So let the rest of us talk about something more pressing. Three years after the Obama White House presented and passed its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a k a “Stimulus”) of 2009, how are we doing? Specifically, on this Dr. King day, how are we doing when it comes to racial justice?
It’s old hat to repeat, as Democrats do, that the so-called “Great Recession” would have been worse for all concerned had Congress passed no stimulus at all. Fair enough, still, it’s been bloody bad—and continues to be dreadfully worse for women and people of color.
The evidence is so ample, it’s hard to know what to pick—but take Indiana University’s report released just last week. According to this study, the number of Americans living below the poverty line surged by 27 percent since 2006, but of the 10 million more people driven into poverty, so called “minorities” and women were worst hit. More than one in four African-Americans and Hispanics is now officially recorded as living in poverty, compared to about one in ten white Americans, and female-headed households fare worse than others.
The explanation’s not hard to find. People of color and women “surged” further, faster, below the poverty line because they started with a multi-yard lead in that direction. Twenty-first-century predatory lending, for example, compounded what twentieth-century redlining and segregation had done: leaving people of color (and women) with less equity, less access to credit and fewer choices. A temporary recession in the white part of town hit the black part of town already in mid-depression. It’s a generational problem—and it’s likely to stay that way.
As John Graham, dean of the school and one of the authors of the Indiana report, told the Guardian, the most shocking thing about today “new poor” is that their numbers look likely to continue to rise. Nor will all be “new.” People of color will continue to be worse off: “If you look at the educational levels and skill levels of African-Americans and Hispanics, they are more vulnerable as the job market tightens. They don’t have either the extra edge in education or skills that white Americans do,” says Graham.
Dr. King called for a shift not just in laws but in power, and understanding. Racial justice, he taught, is a core social value, without which we can not have a “recovered” society—morally, socially—or economically.
Turning to Obama, sure, things could have been worse, but they could also have been better. Certainly, the billions of dollars appropriated for “Reinvestment and Recovery” three years ago provided an extraordinary opportunity to make a dent in the disparities that plague post-apartheid America.
This Dr. King Day, if we weren’t so distracted by the madness of the GOP, perhaps we’d be spending some time considering that three years ago, a chorus of voices called on the administration to disperse stimulus funds with a view specifically to racial justice. The Kirwan Institute, the Racial Justice Program of the American Civil Liberties Union and others urged the administration to build justice goals into the recovery plan—not so as to exclude anyone but to address the conditions of racist and sexist inequality that had made the crisis possible.
The Obama administration shied away, not only from the proposal but even from the conversation. Congress did end up targeting $240 billion of $787 specifically at low-income populations. But although race and gender discrimination had been central to the problem—race and gender justice wasn’t central to the solution, and the president did nothing to use his bully pulpit to advance King’s message even at the level of speeches and education.
So here we are again, marking another King Day holiday, celebrating cultural “diversity” while cringing over economic disparity—and next week will bring from the administration another economic plan with more cuts and more race-neutral talk. It wasn’t supposed to be this way and—possibly, just possibly—it could have been different.
© 2012 The Nation