Yes, You Can -- If You Can Without Obama

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

At a job training center that serves a largely black population in the District, a photograph of President Obama hangs on a wall with signs that say, "Yes, I can," and "Yes, you can." But when it comes to Obama actually addressing the devastating rise in unemployment among African Americans, those words might as well read: Sure I could, but no, I won't.

"Of course we'd welcome any message of uplift from President Obama," said Margie Joyner, president of the Center for Empowerment and Employment Training in Northeast Washington. "The people we serve have a particular need to know that they are not alone, and Obama has a special ability to convey that."

Don't hold your breath.

When it comes to advocating personal responsibility, Obama will take to the pulpit of a black church in a heartbeat. But now, when the problems are clearly being caused by structural inequity in the nation's economic system -- when the hard work and personal responsibility of black people have been rewarded with rip-offs by Wall Street -- he goes curiously silent.

Why? Some say the reason is a political no-brainer.

"Obama can't just talk about blacks when all groups are experiencing incredible jobless rates and suffering," William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at Harvard, told me. "I believe he'll get around to addressing racial disparities in the long term, but in the short term he's got to talk about a stimulus package that increases unemployment benefits and reduces joblessness across the board."

Still, as Wilson knows well, black people are affected far more adversely by these soaring rates of unemployment.

According to figures released last month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for African Americans is 15.4 percent, compared with 9 percent for whites. And that number doesn't even include black people who have given up looking for work. Add them to the bureau's employment-to-population ratio, and you have 52.8 percent of all African American adults -- barely half of us -- employed. Among black teenagers 16 to 19, the unemployment rate has reached a catastrophic 41 percent.

"Over the long term, unfortunately, blacks suffer longer than whites and are slower to recover from a prolonged recession," said Wilson.

Obama should visit places like the Center for Empowerment and Employment Training at 600 W St. NE, which was founded by Joyner and Anita Obarakpor in 1999. He needs to see how hard people are working to solve the problem and how much more help from him they could use.

"I dropped out of high school to work because it was just me and my mom, and she could not support the both of us," said Ishmaaiyl Mulheron, 21, a District resident who is working on his GED at the employment center. "I was wearing the same clothes to school every day, eating only food that was served at school and getting sick from it. So I went to work but lost the job. Now I'm starting over."

Surely Obama could say more about his plans to increase jobs in urban areas.

"Chronic joblessness and jobless neighborhoods contributes to premature deaths, magnify poor health, mental and physical disabilities and contributes to family dissolution," Wilson said. "If these high jobless figures for black people last for another two years, the results will likely be an increase in gang activity, drug and alcohol consumption and crime, including homicides."

In other words, either these unemployed young black men get some of those "shovel-ready" construction jobs or else some of them will become shovel-ready projects themselves -- for a grave digger.

In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama says that his approach to eliminating racial disparities is to make the country work better for everybody. "An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific, programs isn't just good policy; it's also good politics," he writes.


But drawing attention to the special challenges faced by black people in this troubled economy is not about politics or policy. It's about honesty.

For decades, African Americans have been denied opportunities and had the resulting poverty blamed on their so-called laziness and dysfunctional culture. Is it too audacious to hope that the president could speak up enough to at least set the record straight on that?

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company