I’m preparing to type four words I never thought I would: “Donald Trump is right.”
Or, to put it differently, he is right that Black America has fared poorly during the era of the first black president. He is also right that many of us had high hopes at the beginning of the Obama era that have not been met.
What Trump is dead wrong about, however, is who is to blame.
During a phone interview on This Week, Trump said President Obama “has done nothing for African Americans. You look at what’s gone on with their income levels. You look at what’s gone on with their youth. I thought that he would be a great cheerleader for this country. I thought he’d do a fabulous job for the African-American citizens of this country. He has done nothing. They are worse now than just about ever.”
Trump is correct: African Americans are struggling more than other groups. According to Pew, “The wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010.” New data released by Pew has also found black children have fallen further behind their peers. While the overall rate of children living in poverty has been decreasing, the number of black children living in poverty continues to rise. Today, 38 percent of black children now live in poverty.
Then there are the unemployment numbers.
It is no secret that black unemployment has been one of the greatest challenges of the Obama administration. Even as the rest of the economy began to rebound, black unemployment remained staggeringly high before finally beginning to turn a corner in 2014. Yet it has remained noticeably higher than that of whites. So has Obama failed Black America? And if he hasn’t, who is to blame for Black America’s troubles?
Let’s start with unemployment. According to an analysis of decades of labor statistics, black unemployment has been roughly double that of whites since records on the topic started being kept in the 1950s—before President Obama was even born.
According to Pew, “The widest gaps, when black unemployment was as much as 2.77 times that of white unemployment, came in the late 1980s, as the manufacturing sectors that employed disproportionate shares of African-Americans shriveled.” This would be during the era of Republican President Ronald Reagan. Pew continues that “The smallest gaps, ironically, came in the summer of 2009 during the Great Recession; white unemployment rose so high, so fast, that the black jobless rate was ‘only’ 1.67 times higher.”
So we know that the first black president is not responsible for creating the black unemployment crisis. The next question becomes could he have done more to solve it. The short answer is yes. The longer answer is only if he had the necessary support to do so, and he hasn’t.
Though few Republican candidates, including Trump, have been honest enough to admit it, race continues to play a major role in hiring decisions—even among hiring managers who are not consciously racist. A few examples among many: Job applicants with black sounding names are significantly less likely to get contacted for interviews: (For those who suggest candidates simply change their first names, there are last names perceived as “black-sounding” as well.)
An infamous Princeton study also found that a black man without a prison record has as much likelihood getting called back for a second job interview as a white applicant with a prison record. Even when white and black candidates have comparable résumés and qualifications, whites were twice as likely to receive an interview callback.
But of course one of the challenges of being the first black president is that every move the President has made has been viewed and critiqued through the prism of race. As a black man, the President has spent his two terms walking on political eggshells to prove he is not racially biased.
This political straitjacket has had tragic results for the black community. Senator Mark Pryor told me that a diversity policy resembling football’s “Rooney Rule” could improve the playing field for black applicants. But he also acknowledged the challenge of implementing such a policy while the current president is in office.
And when it comes to black child poverty, there is plenty of blame to go around. If black adults have a harder time securing employment due to discrimination, that obviously hurts black children. So does the number of black men who are disproportionately incarcerated. President Obama has faced criticism from some black Americans for critiquing black fathers for not being involved enough, instead of critiquing the system that leaves many of them jobless, or in jail.
This perfectly illustrates why the first black president has been caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to helping the black community address its woes. Because of critics on the left, many of them black, the President has not had the necessary support and political leverage to be as candid as he needs to be to address some of our community’s greatest problems.
For instance, despite the fact that African Americans are more likely to be unemployed, and have less wealth than whites, we still have higher fertility rates. As long as those numbers hold, we are destined to remain a community shrouded in poverty.
This means that by the time the President gives a lecture to young fathers on being responsible, it’s usually too late. If a father is unemployed or under-employed and the mother of his child or children is unemployed or under-employed, the fact is their child is going to struggle to have a shot at the American Dream. According to studies, America is one of the least upwardly mobile Western countries in the world, meaning a black child born into poverty will probably live and die in poverty.
I think that’s a travesty. But I also think it’s a travesty that high-profile black Americans, including the President and his black liberal supporters (and critics), are not using their platforms to tell more black Americans the hard truth: It is irresponsible to have children when you know you do not have the financial or emotional bandwidth to raise them.
The black community will never have a real chance at economic equality until more of us are honest about this. That doesn’t mean letting government off the hook where it deserves accountability. After all, many of the GOP hopefuls are jockeying to defund Planned Parenthood, which is one of the primary sources poor women rely on for contraception. (Go figure.) But it does mean embracing the power we actually have to change our plight, and responsible family planning is something we can control whether racism exists or not.
So in the end The Donald is right. Black America isn’t doing so great. But if anyone’s to blame, it’s not so much the president, but critics like Trump, who use race as a weapon to critique the first black president without offering any meaningful solutions for improving the plight of Black America.