When Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, he won it with the votes of millions of young black people.
They were the kids who went from door-to-door, kids who wore T-shirts and Kangol caps bearing his name – or his image and the word “Hope.” Kids who, in seeing a black man become president of the world’s foremost superpower, began to believe in the power of their dreams.
But now, the president needs to step up for them in the same way that they stepped out for him more than two years ago – because right now, their dreams are poised to be crushed beneath the oppressive weight of unemployment and underemployment.
I say this because recently, The Children’s Defense Fund released a report which showed that 40 percent of black people aged 16 to 29 years old were either not working, had given up looking for work or were working in part-time jobs because it was the only work they could get.
Twenty-four percent of white people in that age group were in the same predicament, as were 34 percent of Latinos.
The employment rate of blacks aged 25 to 29 – years when they should be building expertise in their chosen professions or careers – dropped 14 percentage points over the past decade. That’s the biggest drop in employment among all the racial and ethnic groups in that age category; for whites, the rate dropped eight percentage points while for Latinos, the drop was six percentage points.
And, for extra fun, the median income of young black families dipped 24 percent over the last three decades, while during that same period, the median income of young white families dropped by 11 percent, and the median income of young Latino families dropped by 15 percent.
I wonder if the president knows this – and I wonder if he grasps how disastrous this situation will become for the entire nation if nothing is specifically done to turn it around.
It’s not that young whites and Latinos are prospering. Yet, when I look at young black people, a group that, like older black people, has always struggled with unemployment more than any other group, I see kids who could very well wind up being trapped in a cycle of desperation not because they don’t want work, but because they are unable to get the type of work during their early earning years to build a resume that will guarantee them a livable wage and a better quality of life.
Add to that the discrimination and the stereotyping many of them tend to be more vulnerable to in good times – God forbid their name is Lakeshia or DeAngelo – and that doesn’t spell hope as much as it spells frustration.
Does anyone get how scary this is?
There is a bit of good news here. Another report done for the defense fund showed that young black people, for the most part, feel positive about the future. That’s a great attitude to have, and I have to believe that Obama’s triumph has something to do with that.
They probably don’t expect Obama to work miracles. And neither do I. The economic situation he inherited was beyond hellish, and it will take some time to fix.
But it irritates me when Obama insists that the unique problems of black people – the constituency that has kept his ratings from plummeting into the 30s – can be solved without specifically targeting the structural unemployment that plagues black people and black communities even in better times.
The president talked about growing jobs during his State of the Union address last night. Among other things, he talked about making that happens with investments in infrastructure, in education, and through the hundreds of thousands of jobs he expects to be created through trade agreements with India, China and Korea.
Maybe at some point, Obama will begin to address the structural inequalities that are now poised to keep black youths shackled in joblessness. They are, after all, the ones who believed in him enough to stand in line to give him his history-making job.
I just hope that at some point, he sees fit to return the favor.