President Barack Obama eloquently described the agony experienced among African-Americans from the slaying of Trayvon Martin. He called for a more thoughtful “conversation” on race, convened not by politicians, but among families, in churches and workplaces. He suggested modest steps to provide greater training on racial profiling with police, greater efforts to figure out how to do a “better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed.”
The president’s courageous comments merit praise and consideration. But we’ve had a long conversation about race in America. No small part of American history has been devoted to that “conversation” and that struggle. And as the president said, great progress has been made.
What we need now is action. The president’s personal narrative must translate into policy. His sentiments must be turned into meaningful solutions.
Young African-American boys need positive reinforcement, but they also need adequate nutrition as infants, good education as children, and jobs once they get out of school. Unemployment among black teenagers not in school hit a staggering 42.6 percent in June (up from a miserable 36.4 percent a year ago).
Blacks and Hispanics are clustered into low-wage, unstable jobs, and physically concentrated in impoverished ghettos and barrios, mostly in our nation’s cities. According to the census, in 31 cities, the unemployment rate is above 40 percent. In six of them, the unemployment rate is above 50 percent, which makes these young men fodder for the prison industrial complex. This is a global disgrace.
These men need more than a conversation about them from those who already have jobs. They need a plan. Lift them up where they belong. This is good policy for Americans. Lifting them is cheaper and much more wholesome than talking about them and leaving them in the margins.
Yet, the last time we had any major effort targeted at the concentrated areas of poverty and joblessness was Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s. In fact, Johnson’s war was remarkably successful, reducing childhood poverty and providing work or training to millions. But its programs fell victim to the costs of the Vietnam War.
Now, instead of concerted programs to provide hope and opportunity, African-Americans witness concerted attacks on the poor. North Carolina, for example, has become one of six southern states to introduce new voter ID laws since the Supreme Court’s conservative justices dismembered the Voting Rights Act. The Senate version requires a state issued ID, disqualifies student IDs for voting. The House version cuts early voting, same day registration and more. Of the 316,000 registered voters without a state-issued ID, 34 percent are African-American and 55 percent registered Democrats.
Since Republicans took control in North Carolina in 2012, the state has taken a hard shift to the right. So far this year, bills passed or pending by Republicans would eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit for 900,000 low wage workers, reduce Medicaid benefits for 500,000 and federal unemployment benefits for 170,000, cut 30,000 kids out of pre-K, and transferred $90 million from public to voucher schools.
In North Carolina, people of conscience realized that a conversation about the situation wasn’t enough. The Rev. William Barber III, president of the North Carolina NAACP, helped create “Moral Mondays,” weekly protests at the state capitol to “dramatize the shameful condition of our state.” These protests have grown dramatically, with thousands getting arrested in peaceful civil disobedience to challenge the assault on voting rights and on the poor.
This week, President Obama will travel to Knox College in Illinois to outline out his agenda on jobs and the economy once more. He will contrast “middle-out” economics, a focus on the strengthening the middle class, with the trickle-down economics of Republicans. If we are to provide hope for young African-American boys, we need a bottom up economics, as well, targeted to provide jobs in communities scarred by high levels of unemployment and poverty.
Whatever the president’s agenda, Rev. Barber is right. Nothing will get through the obstructionists in Congress unless citizens of conscience mobilize across the nation and demand action. That will create the conversation we need to make progress once more.