President Trump constantly touts the African American unemployment rate: at campaign rallies, at news conferences, in his State of the Union address and in tweet after tweet after tweet. It’s meant as a two-for-one, to diminish the record of his immediate predecessor, who happens to be the nation’s first black president, and to mitigate his insulting remarks about black people: “Look at my African American over here”; “What do you have to lose?”; “low I.Q. person”; “son of a bitch”; “shithole”; and so on. He has provided “the blacks” (not to mention the Hispanics, the gays, the Muslims and the women) so many jobs, you see, that no one should care how he talks about the blacks.
This is how we got White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claiming last week that “when President Obama left after eight years in office — eight years in office — he had only created 195,000 jobs for African Americans. President Trump in his first year and a half has already tripled what President Obama did in eight years.” Sanders acknowledged the error almost immediately: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black Americans have netted 700,000 jobs under Trump; black Americans gained 2.8 million during Barack Obama’s two terms.
But the reason for this faux pas was telling. Sanders uttered it after being asked repeatedly about rumored audio of Trump saying the n-word and after saying she “can’t guarantee” that such a recording doesn’t exist — a deflection meant to blunt any indication of racism. (She does not appear to have considered that a president can still be racist and preside over increased employment among African Americans, as The Washington Post’s Eugene Scott pointed out.)
Let’s say, though, that you can compare Trump’s favorite indexes — unemployment data and stock market performance — and leave aside the usual caveats: Presidents get too much credit/blame for good/bad economic news; Obama served two full terms, and Trump is still in his first; benchmarks such as the official unemployment rate are, at best, imperfect measures of the economy; and before he was president, Trump routinely called the jobs report “phony.”
Even with those rules, it’s still no contest: Obama was far better for African Americans.
From the start of Obama’s tenure to the end, the black unemployment rate dropped from 12.7 to 7.8 percent. So far, under Trump, it has dropped to 6.6 percent — an impressive number, historically — and one worth trumpeting. But it’s nowhere near the difference Obama achieved.
The Dow is up 30 percent after 19 months under Trump. Over the same period during Obama’s presidency, it rose a comparable 28 percent. At the end of Obama’s first term, it was up about 70 percent, and when he left office, it was up nearly 150 percent. Though a recent study found that African Americans “are 35 percent less likely than whites of similar means to invest in the stock market,” plenty of black people have 401(k)s, and the benefits of a roughly seven-year bull market accrue to African Americans, too.
For good measure, consider a few key policy choices: In 2016, in his “new deal for black America” speech, Trump said, “I have heard and listened to the concerns raised by African American citizens about our justice system, and I promise that under a Trump administration, the law will be applied fairly, equally and without prejudice. There will be only one set of rules, not a two-tiered system of justice.” As president, though, he has gone on to attack black professional athletes protesting police brutality, and his Justice Department has sought to unwind consent decrees aimed at reining in police who apply unequal treatment to African Americans.
Obama’s Justice Department, by contrast, worked to implement a number of those consent decrees. In 2010, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing the sentencing disparity for crack and powder-cocaine crimes that, he said in 2008, “disproportionately filled our prisons with young black and Latino drug users.” That year, he signed legislation funding a billion-dollar settlement between the Agriculture Department and African American farmers, resolving a case that had languished for years.
Though it’s an arguably outdated notion, if you were looking for a model of the traditional husband and father, you’d be hard-pressed to find one better than Obama. The criteria are subjective, but Trump, a (maybe) billionaire whose father handed him a multimillion-dollar business, is not a better role model for young African Americans (or anybody else).
Obama’s White House brought in and developed a cadre of black political talent. Trump delegated black outreach to Omarosa Manigault Newman, a reality-TV personality distrusted by black Republicans and Democrats who now calls Trump a racist and suggests the rumored n-word tape really exists.
As a counterpoint, critics can point to the black employment rate in specific metro areas — a 2016 Brookings Institution study found that “among the 10 largest metro areas black employment rates across all ages are the lowest in Chicago.” At best, in his adopted hometown, Obama’s record is seen as mixed. And as the Undefeated’s Michael Fletcher reported in 2016, Obama’s “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach” to education budgets “left many advocates for historically black colleges disappointed.” In February, Inside Higher Education’s Andrew Kreighbaum reported that some HBCU advocates are treating education policy reversals, such as a return of year-round Pell Grants, as a point for Trump.
The wealth gap existed before Obama’s presidency and will probably be there when Trump’s ends. That’s a failure on many levels, reflecting negatively, in some sense, on Obama, Trump and all their predecessors.
To inflate his own image, though, Trump set up a simplistic comparison: Black jobs numbers are good, so he must be doing a good job for black America. Yet, by constantly bringing up the black unemployment rate as a diversion from his offensive statements, Trump winds up leaving the impression that he doesn’t think black America deserves a president who respects African Americans as individuals. He sees African Americans as a lesser constituency that should be content to watch Trump lionize himself for a marginal improvement in jobs statistics.
It would be easier to just stop saying racist stuff.
Ranking presidents isn’t an exact science. And saying Obama was “better” gives a lot of weight, maybe too much, to a limited set of numbers. But because Trump and his aides keep setting up the comparison, let’s take it seriously.