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Tailoring job relief to America's diverse communities

By John A. Powell
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; A15

As President Obama tackles the financial crisis, his policies must address the economic distress unevenly affecting Americans. Assessments of the impact cannot be reduced to abstract averages or gross aggregates. Jobless rates and other economic measures have human dimensions that vary dramatically across the nation.

The White House has two responses to this issue: one, that the president cannot focus solely on African Americans; he must be concerned with all Americans. The other response suggests that African Americans and other communities of color -- disproportionately affected by foreclosures, lack of health insurance and joblessness -- will be the primary beneficiaries of a universal economic recovery program for all Americans.

While both responses appear to have merit, they also have flaws. The first statement suggests that to be concerned about the condition of African Americans as a whole would be too narrow and parochial, similar to the rhetorical assertion that President Ronald Reagan used when he opposed civil rights legislation as a special interest. The second statement's flaw lies in its claim that universal remedies can be addressed without pandering to the interest of one group or ignoring the concerns of others.

In reality, the goal of the civil rights movement, like the goal of a fair recovery, is universal. On most issues, the goal of blacks or Latinos is no different than the goal of whites. What stands apart are the varied needs of each group that must be met to reach these goals, not merely because of race but also because they have different opportunities and structures for advancement.

Despite the billions spent to rescue the financial sector, today's economic climate offers little for the average American to cheer about. The housing bubble that contributed so greatly to the recent economic collapse hit blacks and Latinos particularly hard. Many in those communities would have qualified for primary, or traditional, loans but were systematically victims of predatory lending. While unemployment in January was at 9.7 percent for the nation overall, among black or Latino populations the rates are 16.5 and 12.6 percent, respectively. How do we make sense of government jobs programs that help lower the unemployment rate for the overall population, while unemployment continues to rise for people of color?

Consider a historical example of this phenomenon: President Bill Clinton hailed the G.I. Bill as one of the greatest creators of the American middle class. Yet because whites and people of color were situated differently, this policy was of much greater benefit to whites. The majority of G.I.s were white; 98 percent were male. The direct benefit of this policy to women was negligible. Even though this bill was seen as universal and race- and gender-neutral, it played into an arrangement that was already heavily gender- and race-biased. Through direct government intervention, disparities were widened between whites and people of color, and between women and men.

More recently, stimulus programs emphasizing "shovel-ready" projects have poured money into a construction industry that continues to be heavily staffed by white men. How is such an effort focusing on the needs of all Americans?

Communities are situated differently in relationship to pathways for opportunity. Focusing on a single factor will seldom address the need or fashion an approach that acknowledges these differences.

Detroit, once described as the "arsenal of democracy," is fighting for its life. And as we grudgingly bail out General Motors, we do precious little for Detroit -- a struggling Rust Belt city in a struggling state in a struggling region. When the governor of Michigan reaches out for help from the White House, it would be absurd to respond with the notion that aid must be concerned with all American states or cities.

The foreclosure program the administration recently announced offers a more targeted approach, assisting homeowners in Michigan and the four other states hit hardest by the housing meltdown. Similarly, the jobs bill might set a universal goal, such as reducing unemployment to pre-recession levels, and the unemployment rate in all communities to no more than 30 percent higher than the national average. This would mean greater job creation in communities hurting the most.

Most black Americans desperately want the president to succeed, not just because he is black but also because it would be good for the country. We embrace many of the universal goals that make our nation great. We acknowledge that a rising tide may lift all boats. But first, you must have a boat.

Obama should be expected to address the disparities affecting Americans who are situated differently -- not because he is black but because he is the president of all Americans.

The writer is executive director of Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. The institute recently published on FairRecovery.org the report "ARRA and the Economic Crisis One Year Later: Has Stimulus Helped Communities in Crisis?" He also holds a chair in civil rights and civil liberties at Moritz College of Law.

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