The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump economy left Black Americans behind. Here’s how they want Biden to narrow the gaps.

Black Americans propelled Biden to the presidency. Now they’re counting on him to deliver on his promise to end systemic racism.

People participate in Parade to the Polls on Oct. 24 in New Orleans. The event was organized by Operation Go Vote!, a collaborative of African American civic and social organizations. (Rusty Costanza/AP)

After Black voters propelled Joe Biden to the White House, the new president faces the dual challenges of reversing an economic downturn that has devastated communities of color while also addressing decades of racial economic disparity.

Black Americans want President Biden to narrow systemic racial inequalities that have left them trailing Whites on every economic measure, gaps that are worsening amid the coronavirus recession. Black earnings for low-income households are predicted to fall by at least 35 percent compared with 2018, reversing gains since the last economic recovery, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, and the Groundwork Collaborative, an activist group focused on economic issues.

“What Biden has to do that few presidents have been willing to do is target,” said Julianne Malveaux, a labor economist and former president of Bennett College. “If I tell you that Appalachia was hardest hit with covid, you would have a special relief program for Appalachia. When I tell you that Black America is hardest hit, you have some reluctance to deal with race head on.

“For a president who doesn’t want to rock the racial boat, targeting may be considered politically risky, but with economic justice issues at the forefront, a case could easily be made,” she said. “If you have a population that’s been harder hit, you have to have specific remedies for that population.”

Biden had campaigned on a promise to make racial justice “core” to every part of his economic agenda, vowing in his inaugural address to confront “growing inequity” and “the sting of systemic racism.” He is expected Tuesday to sign executive orders addressing racial equity, including promoting fair housing policies.

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Among his priorities: closing the racial wealth gap, expanding access to affordable housing, and investing in Black entrepreneurs and communities.

Women, especially Black women and Latinas, are dropping out of the labor force because of the pandemic. The number of Black small-business owners dropped 41 percent between February and April, the steepest decline of any group. And minority-owned small businesses were last to receive loans under the government’s coronavirus relief program, according to an Associated Press analysis of Paycheck Protection Program data.

Biden has unveiled a $1.9 trillion coronavirus economic proposal that calls on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from $7.25, where it has been since 2009. It also would expand the child tax credit, unemployment benefits, access to paid sick and family medical leave, as well as housing and food assistance; increase stimulus payments; and provide more grants for small businesses.

“The return on these investments — in jobs, in racial equity — will prevent long-term economic damage, and the benefits will far surpass the costs,” Biden said when releasing his stimulus plan last week.

He has nominated labor economist Cecilia Rouse as the first Black official to lead the Council of Economic Advisers, an appointment that some hope will help swing economic policy from favoring corporations toward workers. Jared Bernstein, another Biden economic adviser, and Janelle Jones, chief economist at the Department of Labor, have urged the Federal Reserve to adopt more racially inclusive policies and consider targeting the Black unemployment rate when setting interest rates — measuring the health of the economy against how the most vulnerable workers are faring.

Elected as a moderate and with a narrow majority in Congress, Biden cannot make sweeping policy changes without winning support from Republicans.

However, Ian Haney López, a University of California at Berkeley law professor whose research focuses on the link between racial divisions and growing wealth inequality, argues the GOP has stoked racial resentment and fear to maintain power for the rich. “The right’s rhetoric has convinced Whites to see government programs as giveaways to undeserving people of color,” Haney López said.

In reality, economists say, forgiving student loan debt, expanding community college access and creating access to affordable health care would significantly benefit poor and working-class Whites as well.

Ravi Perry, chairman of the political science department at Howard University, said young voters are increasingly impatient with the slow pace of progress toward racial equality, viewing pragmatism and moderate politics, whether Democratic or Republican, as stagnation.

“A generation ago, moderate politicians were the crux of what made American politics work,” Perry said. “Black youth today find racial equality goals to be directly tied to their livelihood and have little to no tolerance with the pace of change many Democrats have tried to woo them with.”

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As skeptical as many Black voters have been of the Democratic Party to represent their interests — after all, the racial economic gaps have persisted for decades under both parties — they once again rejected the candidate who in 2016 asked them: “What the hell do you have to lose?

While Black voters overwhelmingly chose Biden, with 87 percent casting their ballots for him, 12 percent voted for Donald Trump, up slightly from 8 percent in 2016, according to the national network exit poll. An even larger share of Black voters — 17 percent — said they trusted Trump more than Biden to handle the economy.

To Maurice Jones, a 22-year-old aspiring police officer in Omaha, Trump’s frequent boasts of being the best president for Black Americans since Abraham Lincoln have been not only patently ridiculous, but insulting.

Trump presided over the most unequal recession in modern American history because of his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. Black workers, overrepresented in the hospitality industry as well as nursing and other jobs considered to be essential, are more susceptible to being exposed to the virus, while many lack health insurance and live paycheck to paycheck.

Sure, unemployment rates for Black people were at a historic low before the coronavirus shutdown, as Trump frequently reminded voters. But mere employment does not equate to a living wage or health and retirement benefits, Jones pointed out, citing the 20-cent raise his mother recently received at one of her two part-time housekeeping jobs, bringing her highest hourly wage to $11.40.

Jones recalled his family going weeks without water or electricity when he was a child. His mother would buy bags of ice to keep their food cold and jugs of water to flush their toilet.

“I wanted to hear Trump talk about Black opportunity in a different way,” said Jones, a college junior and campus security guard. “I wanted him to be on the front line in calling out the racism that is very much a part of this economic system that we live in. Instead, he talked about Black voters like, if it weren’t for him, this White savior, we’d be in squalor.”

So Jones, who had considered himself a Republican before Trump’s divisive rhetoric drove him away from the party, said he pushed his extended family, including those living in Florida and Mississippi, to register to vote in 2020 — for Biden.

“I’m pro-Black,” Jones said, “and I support good policies that support Black families.”

Jones said Trump did have a valid point when he asked Black voters to question what Democrats have done for the Black community.

“Black people need to explore that. If we ignore it, Democrats who don’t understand how bad policies have hurt Black people won’t learn from those mistakes,” he said, referring to Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, drafted by Biden, that imposed tougher prison sentences that critics say exacerbated the mass incarceration of Black men. Biden also sponsored a series of laws in the 1980s that increased penalties for drug crimes.

Haney López said Clinton also adopted the racial framework of Republicans to compete for White voters when he campaigned to “end welfare as we know it.”

Jones would like to see the Biden administration empower Black Americans by expanding homeownership opportunities to help families build wealth, rigorously enforcing civil rights laws against discrimination in lending, and including financial literacy in education at a young age so Black people feel comfortable investing in the stock market and saving for retirement.

“These are critical building blocks for Black people,” Jones said. “This is the way we determine whether Black people’s economic status has changed.”

The covid-19 recession is the most unequal in modern U.S. history

The wealth gap between Blacks and Whites persisted even at the height of economic expansion, with the typical White family reporting eight times the wealth of a typical Black family in 2019, according to the latest Federal Reserve data. The median wealth for White families was $188,200, compared with $24,100 for Black families.

White families had nearly four times as much as Black families in emergency savings, the Fed survey showed, and were also far more likely to receive an inheritance, own homes and have money in the stock market, including for retirement — all of which has allowed White Americans to more easily weather the coronavirus recession and even rebound from it.

Economists say that rather than champion economic policies targeting average Black Americans, who are more likely to work low-wage jobs without health and retirement benefits, Trump’s annual budgets proposed eviscerating the social safety net, with cuts to housing, food stamps and health care. His 2017 signature tax bill disproportionately advantaged corporations and the wealthiest Americans with the largest one-time reduction in the corporate tax rate in U.S. history and the lowering of the top tax rate for the highest earners.

“The top 1 percent of households claimed about 83 percent of the benefits of that tax law. There are very few African Americans in the top 1 percent,” said Valerie Wilson, director of Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity and the economy. “When we look at the economic well-being of African Americans, we have to look not just at absolute progress, but at relative progress, and there has been absolutely no gains on that front.”

Biden’s policies on the economy

Even the Black unemployment rate’s record low average of 6.1 percent over 2019 — a steady improvement that had begun during the Obama administration — remained double that of Whites. (Joblessness has climbed for all groups since the pandemic, with unemployment in December at 9.9 percent for Black households compared with 6 percent for White ones.)

“That number left out a lot of us — the unemployed people who stopped looking for work, the incarcerated people. It didn’t take into consideration underemployment and part-time and poverty wages,” said Shanika Houlder-White, deputy executive director of the National Black Worker Center Project.

Some Black Democrats gave Trump credit for further growing an already strong economy before the pandemic-induced recession, but noted that he failed to address persistent racial wealth disparities, refusing to seriously consider the existence of systemic racism.

“If you don’t admit systemic racism is real, you can’t do anything to make it better,” said Terria McDonald, 58, who works for a credit bureau in Decatur, Ga., and voted for Biden. “I do like that the new administration acknowledges that and is trying to work toward bridging the gap.”

Other voters, activists and economists say they would like Biden to be more deliberate about crafting policies and programs to help Black Americans — such as setting aside construction jobs for Black workers in an infrastructure bill given the industry’s long history of racism, putting more money into minority business development and extending more help for small Black businesses to access coronavirus relief.

Celeste Lewis, a 76-year-old retired Walgreens cashier in Houston, would like to see the Biden administration focus on college affordability and job opportunities so her five grandchildren will have more economic security than she does.

Her 24-year-old granddaughter, who lives with her, had been working as a home health aide, a day-care teacher and a cashier until she was laid off because of the pandemic; she now takes college classes online in hopes of becoming a veterinarian.

Lewis’s husband of 45 years died in July after being hospitalized with covid-19, an outcome that still shocks her given that they rarely left the house and his penchant for meeting her at her flower beds with a cup of coffee and hand sanitizer. He had recently retired as a machinist and was the one who had taken care of their household bills. She says she is able to stretch their Social Security checks to make ends meet because she does not shop, eat out, take vacations or partake in any “extracurricular activities.”

“I used to bring the bills in from the mailbox, look at them, put them on the table and that was it,” Lewis said. “Now, well, I’ve got to take care of it.

“I’ve been making it,” she said. “But it’s a fight from day-to-day.”

Seung Min Kim and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.