By Guest Contributor Andrew Grant-Thomas, originally published at RaceTalk.org
What a long, strange year it’s been.
A year that began with the loud insistence by some that Barack Obama’s election confirmed the United States as an essentially colorblind, post-racial nation went on to present a series of spectacular counterpoints to that claim – flaps over Attorney General Eric Holder’s “nation of cowards” race speech, Joe Wilson’s shouted “you lie!” during the president’s health care address, Professor Henry Louis Gates’ encounter with a white police officer at his home, the Senate inquiry into Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment, and more.
And yet, while President Obama’s State of the Union address sprinkled references to several categories of people and communities about whom he expressed concern, race was altogether absent from his remarks. “Small towns and rural communities” received early mention. So, too, did “those who had already known poverty,” “working families,” “small business owners,” “first-time homebuyers,” gays in the military, women (with respect to equal pay laws), and, of course, “middle-class Americans,” among others. Race? Ethnicity? Nothing.
As a matter of political calculus, the silence was unremarkable and unsurprising, coming as it did from a president reluctant to publicly tread the ground of race except, at times, in the context of his personal biography. However, with respect to on-the-ground realities and the opportunity presented for social transformation, a continued failure to engage race would be devastating.
The pain of economic recession has been felt widely, but not equally. President Obama noted that 1 in 10 Americans could not find work. (The fraction would be much larger if we included those so discouraged that they have stopped looking for work and therefore are not included among the “officially” unemployed.) He didn’t tell us that joblessness is much worse for African Americans (1 in 6) and for Latinos (1 in 8 ) and has worsened much faster for them than for Americans as a whole. The president referred to declining home values. He did not acknowledge that African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and women have borne the brunt of the resulting dramatic loss in wealth. He pointed out that in the 21st century “one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education.” However, the president neglected to mention that young Latino adults earn bachelor’s degrees at one-third the rate of their white peers, and that African Americans earn degrees at only half the rates of whites.
Of course, had President Obama provided such facts about the racially disparate impact of our economic crisis, it would have been crucial that he also offer informed insights into the underlying dynamic. He could have referred to overwhelming evidence about the presence and behavioral effects of cognitive biases unknowingly harbored even by many of us who mean better, bias typically directed against people of color. He could have noted that women and people of color receive risky subprime housing loans much more often than similarly qualified white men do. The president could have educated the American people about the many young African Americans and Latinos who live isolated from decent opportunities in neighborhoods that provide access only to underfunded, low-performing schools, unsafe streets, a limited number of unpromising jobs even in “good” times, and inadequate public transportation. He might have explained that such structural, institutional, and attitudinal barriers render those subject to them especially vulnerable to the ravages of crisis, economic and otherwise.
The same conditions that foster vulnerability for some often undermine the effectiveness of policy and program interventions ostensibly meant to support us all. The president deserves credit for the role played by his administration’s stimulus package in mitigating the recession’s harmful effects. Unfortunately, he must also accept some blame for the fact that the recovery so far has helped least those who need help most. For example, only a small fraction of the $39 billion in direct federal contracts awarded in 2009 went to small businesses owned by women, Latinos or African Americans. (State and local governments distributed four in five stimulus dollars, but those dollars are very difficult to track.) Similarly, the Associated Press reported in May 2009 that “altogether, the government is set to spend 50 percent more per person in areas with the lowest unemployment than it will in communities with the highest.”
Economic recovery can serve all Americans fairly and effectively, or it can create and perpetuate unfairness and inequality based on race, gender, place or other dimensions of identity. Current and future recovery efforts not only must jump-start the economy in the short-term, but also invest in lasting opportunity for all. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast in 2005, many residents defined a successful rebuilding not in terms of what had existed before, but instead with reference to the much-improved community that could yet be. We have a similar opportunity, this time on a national scale. To invoke a Gulf Coast refrain, we must “build back better,” narrowing the equity gap and promoting greater opportunity for all our people. If we are to take full advantage of that opportunity, however, “race” must become a more persistent and forceful element of our policy and programmatic vocabulary.