Lack of jobs for blacks creates tension between black lawmakers and Obama

August 7, 2011

Black lawmakers are embarking on a monthlong campaign Monday to address the staggering unemployment rate among African Americans, an issue that has become a growing source of tension between members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Obama administration.

Lawmakers have met with the administration three times this year seeking support for programs that specifically address the black community, but President Obama has not backed their proposals. The caucus chairman last week slammed the deal negotiated by the administration to raise the national debt ceiling and cut government spending as a “Satan sandwich” that unfairly harms African Americans.

Now, as the CBC launches its most public and coordinated jobs campaign so far, the president is notably absent from the lineup. Instead, the White House has dispatched Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan, who is white, to the event and announced that Obama will embark on his own jobs tour that will take place in the middle of the CBC’s campaign.

“We want him to know that from this day forward . . . we’ve had it,” Michigan Rep. John Conyers recently said of the president. “We want him to come out on our side and advocate, not to watch and wait.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

To be sure, the brunt of black lawmakers’ frustrations are aimed at Republicans, whom they blame for blocking more than 40 bills intended to create jobs for African Americans since the party swept the House of Representatives a year ago. But they have also grown frustrated with Obama’s belief that the best way to help black communities is to improve the overall economy.

The CBC has repeatedly argued that the high unemployment rate should be addressed through targeted programs, such as directing government grants to the poorest neighborhoods. The unemployment rate for African Americans is more than double that for whites and higher than the rate of any other racial group, according to government data. It inched up in July to 16.8 percent from 16.6 percent a year ago, while the jobless rate for whites fell half a percentage point to 8.2 percent.

“I think he knows that there’s a problem,” said Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), who is hosting the first CBC event. But “it’s one thing to know it. It’s another thing to see it, to feel it, to touch it. . . . It may be more urgent than he might even believe.”

In addition to Ohio, the CBC rally will target swing states Florida and Michigan as well as Democratic strongholds in Georgia and California. CBC spokeswoman Stephanie Young said she anticipates other Cabinet members will attend the events and that several federal agencies are participating in the job fairs, which will include more than 200 companies with 10,000 available jobs.

Obama is planning to conduct his own three-day “listening tour” through the Midwest that starts this weekend, with a stop in Iowa on Aug. 16. That same day, the CBC will be in Detroit for the second of its five rallies.

“What the president is doing is not the same as what we’re doing . . . We have real jobs to give real people who are unemployed,” said caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) “This is not one of those deals where we go around and talk about jobs and hope somebody gives us some press attention.”

Still, Cleaver and other black lawmakers are careful to calibrate any statements that could be viewed as critical of Obama. He said the president has had to deal with several crises and believed his jobs tour could help CBC’s efforts. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority of blacks still approve of Obama’s handling of the economy, though that number is down from more than three-quarters a year ago.

“Overall, I hear very strong support for the president,” Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) said. “At the same time, we all want to make sure we hold the White House and the Congress’s feet to the fire when it comes to spurring jobs and opportunity for African American families.”

Terah McNeal, 59, plans to attend the first CBC job fair to be held in Cleveland Monday. She has been out of work since she was laid off from her job managing a senior citizens center and has been relying on unemployment benefits to make ends meet. McNeal said she has had five interviews, though none have worked out. She is setting up a social networking account on LinkedIn to help her job search.

McNeal said she is not sure what Obama or anyone else could have done differently to prop up the economy. But she does know that finding a job is a lot harder than she ever thought it would be.

“It can become discouraging,” McNeal said. “It’s a lot more digging deeper, rolling up your sleeves and getting in the trenches until it happens and just trying not to lose hope.”

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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