In light of the recent report that shows that during this current recession the already-wide racial wealth gap has grown even more wide, I thought it would be appropriate to post a series I wrote in 2007 when I was a contributing editor for the Black Agenda Report. Regrettably, the information is just as prescient now as it was then.
In part six I concluded the deconstruction of affirmative action and the real racial preferences in our nation and society. In part seven, I will tell the untold story about the predicament of Black males during the economic boom of the nineties and what the governmental and societal response to the black victims of Hurricane Katrina tells us about where we are today.
The Uneven & Unequal 90’s
Erik Eckholm, in an article for the New York Times titled “Plight Deepens for Black Men,” details the dilemma of Black males during the economic boom of the 1990’s (a boom that President Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton take great pride in):
•The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.
•Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990's and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20's who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison.
•In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school.
According to data compiled by Princeton sociologist Bruce Western, the shift from factory jobs caused low & low-middle income workers of all races to lose ground, but none more profoundly than Black males. By 2004, 50 percent of Black men in their 20’s who lacked a college education were unemployed, as were 72 percent of all high school dropouts---these numbers are more than double the rate of white and Hispanic men.
Further, according to a Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies 2002 study, “Left Behind in the Labor Market: Labor Market Problems of the Nation’s Out-of-School, Young Adult Populations,” the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 and the Youth Opportunity grant program were modestly funded and short-lived responses. However, the sustained economic growth of the 1990s was sufficient to increase employment and earnings among most of this population. In an excerpt from the book, “Left Behind: Less-Educated Young Black Men in the Economic Boom of the 1990s,” Ronald B. Mincy states that “despite some erosion since the 2001 recession, the urgent need for special youth-targeted programs has been undermined by reports of the gains during the 1990s, including a widely cited study suggesting that the economic recovery would absorb less-educated young black men—historically, the hardest-to reach-population—into the labor market (Freeman and Rodgers 2000).
After all, business cycles affect the fortunes of most Americans, so, many observers assume that economic recovery will once again lift the fortunes of young, less-educated men (writer’s note: this is the Clintonian version of trickle-down economics).
“But such optimism [was] unwarranted. Less-educated young black men were left behind in the economic boom of the 1990s. During the 1990s the employment rate of 16- to 24-year-old, less-educated black men actually fell from its peak during the 1980s economic expansion. What’s more, their labor force participation rate continued the decline that occurred throughout the 1980s. These findings question the wisdom of a broad strategy for all less-educated youth and young adults, and suggest that targeted approaches are needed to recover a sub-population for which sustained economic growth is apparently not enough.”
By 2004, 50 percent of Black men in their 20's who lacked a college education were unemployed.
From 1979 to 2001, the labor force participation of Black males 16 to 24 shrunk from a little over 1 million to 898,000. This dramatic drop in the economic fortunes and employment prospects was exacerbated by the prison industrial complex as evidenced by the rapid growth in the number of Black males who were incarcerated, on parole or probation.
In the 1990’s we see the result of governmental indifference and the hopelessness (that breeds apathy) of many in the Black community.
The Hurricane Horror
To properly contextualize the attitudes and perceptions concerning Black folk (that existed long before Katrina) in the aftermath of “The Hurricane,” let us look to a statement made by former first-lady and current first-mother, Barbara Bush:
“What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena [the New Orleans Superdome] here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working out well for them.”
This clear and insensitive sleight (although I don't believe it was meant to be derogatory) against those who had experienced incredible loss and devastation (as was detailed in Spike Lee’s documentary “When The Levees Broke,” there were some who had to line up their dead loved ones outside the Superdome in the heat of the Louisiana sun).
There were many who believed the reports regarding widespread lawlessness and mayhem in the days and weeks that followed Katrina---such as gangs of Black men on the prowl for women to rape. It is important to point out, however, that these reports have been debunked ad nauseum. Who could forget the two AP photos showing hurricane victims wading through waist and chest-high water in what appeared to be in the same location. Each was carrying a loaf of bread from a nearby grocery store.
However, in the caption under the Black man we read the word “looting” while in the other photo, the white woman was characterized as “finding” her goods. The Black folk left behind and stranded by governmental incompetence and institutional racism, were viewed not as American citizens devastated by a tragedy of epic proportions, but as criminals, rapists, looters and ne’er-do-wells undeserving of common human consideration or compassion.
We left body bags behind... The people of New Orleans were stranded in a flood and were allowed to die.
Community activist Leah Hodges stated: “We left body bags behind… The people of New Orleans were stranded in a flood and were allowed to die.” New Orleans evacuee Patricia Thompson, adds, “Yes it was an issue of race. Because of one thing: when the city had pretty much been evacuated, the people that were left there [were] mostly was Black.”
According to a 2005 Gallup poll, six out of every 10 Black New Orleans residents said if most of Katrina’s victims were white, relief would have arrived sooner.
Over one million people with the means to leave fled before the storm, but nearly 150,000 were left behind, trapped by poverty and neglected by disaster plans. Those who got out were mostly affluent and white. Those left behind were not. They represented the poorest 15-20 percent of New Orleans’ population and were predominantly Black. And yet their deservedness of rescue or consideration was assailed by political pundits and many in the media. Does a doctor in an emergency room treat only the dying patients she deems worthy of treatment?
Nevertheless, the value of the lives of those left behind, were being discussed and debated on television and radio talk shows. While many in the country consumed the lies about rampant criminality, they ignored the truth regarding the countless displays of heroism.
It was the ancient question about Christ reconfigured: “what good thing can come out of New Orleans? Katrina should serve as a wake-up call to the still present institutional and everyday racism; to the incompetence and cronyism of government at all levels and most importantly, it should serve as a wake-up call to a new Black self-determination.