The conventional discourse about racial disparity in America is a myth. It’s a myth upheld by Democrats, Republicans, blacks, and whites alike; in fact, it’s a narrative that the nation’s first black president has been advancing since long before he became president. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then-candidate for the Illinois Senate seat Barack Obama delivered the keynote address, calling for harmony between liberals and conservatives. Within this theme of unity, he alluded to race only once. “Go into any inner-city neighborhood,” Obama said, “and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn. They know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television set, and eradicate the slander that says that a black youth with a book is acting white.” Obama used his first national platform to single out and chastise black youth and their families as the culprits for their own underachievement.
Since then, the president’s rhetoric on race has been remarkably consistent. Obama reiterated the themes of his 2004 keynote in his “More Perfect Union” speech as a presidential candidate in 2008, adding that blacks should cease making particularistic claims on America. “For the African-American community,” he said, the path to a more perfect union “means embracing the burdens of the past without becoming victims of our past. It means . . . binding our particular grievances—for better healthcare, and better schools, and better jobs—to the larger aspirations of Americans.”
Well into his the second term of his presidency, Obama’s talking points still haven’t changed. Rather than referencing Reverend Jeremiah Wright as he did in 2008, he now references the Black Lives Matter movement—only to conclude, in his 2015 State of the Union address, that “we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we’re a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen. . . . Everybody matters” (emphasis added). At best Obama misinterprets the Black Lives Matter message; at worst he attempts to coopt it altogether.
A decade after his entry on the national stage, Obama’s rhetoric on race emphasizes the same basic points: that America has largely transcended its racial divide, and that whatever racial disparities remain are overwhelmingly the result of actions or inaction on the part of black people themselves. Hence policy becomes oriented toward rehabilitating black families, and the logic of austerity reigns. Why fund government agencies and programs that invest misallocated resources to irresponsible individuals, and, at worst, create dependencies that fuel further irresponsible behaviors? Or, instead of austerity, we see policies aimed at modifying black behavior—policies like the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which ignores the plight of young black women altogether and attempts to incentivize so-called defective young black men to be more employable rather than addressing the discriminatory labor market conditions they face. All of these policies are consistent with neoliberal orthodoxy—both its focus on individuals and its faith in the free market. The underlying assumption is that as long as individual agents are properly incentivized, the market offers solutions to all problems, economic or otherwise.
Yet over the past forty years, regardless of education, the black unemployment rate has remained roughly twice that of whites. In fact, there has been only one year in the last forty years, 2000, in which the black rate has dipped below 8 percent, in contrast to the fewer than four years in which the white rate has reached 8 percent. So, if 8 percent is a demarcation of economic calamity—as GOP pundits declared during the 2012 election cycle—then black Americans are in a perpetual state of employment crisis. And discrimination, of course, hardly ends when you find a job. The disparity between black and white wages has stagnated since the late 1970s and, for black women, even increased, while black family income has hovered right around 60 percent of white median income since the late 1960s.
The disparities are even larger when we examine wealth. Blacks and Latinos make up about 30 percent of the U.S. population, but collectively own about 5 percent of the nation’s wealth. When it comes to liquid assets, those that can be readily converted into cash, blacks and Latinos are virtually penniless. The typical black family has $200 in liquid non-housing and vehicle assets. And if you exclude retirement savings, they have $25 in the bank.
Meanwhile, in spite of these enormous disparities in capital stock, the prevailing discourse is focused on education, along with individual attitude, as the drivers of upward mobility. The presumption is that if black people were more responsible, made better financial decisions, and focused on education, they could get a good job and achieve economic security. But studying and working hard isn’t enough for black Americans. On average, if you are a white head of household that dropped out of high school, your family wealth is about $10,000 greater than that of a black family whose head graduated from college. If you are a black head of household employed full time, your family wealth is less than that of white families where the head is unemployed. And the typical middle-class black family has less wealth than the typical income-poor white family.
There is a clear intrinsic value to education, along with a public responsibility to offer everyone a high quality education. But education is not the antidote for the enormous racial disparities in wealth or employment. The societal over-emphasis on education as a panacea against racial and economic disparity directly follows from the dominant neoliberal, post-racial discourse. By largely ignoring the underlying structures of racial disparity, this empirically unsubstantiated rhetoric only serves to reinforce social hierarchy.
What we need instead are policies to eradicate the structural factors that preserve the relative status of dominant groups, including intergenerational resource transfers and exclusionary practices. One such policy—as William Darity, Jr., Alan Aja, Daniel Bustillo, and I have advocated in these pages—is a federal job guarantee, which would go a long way toward addressing racial disparities and building an inclusive U.S. economy. In addition to offering the economic security of a living wage to all citizens, the program would offer a wide array of public goods that this country desperately needs. Beyond physical infrastructure investments, like better transportation and clean energy, we also need more public investment in human infrastructure: schools, hospitals, the arts, and high-quality childcare. This public investment will provide tremendous economic benefit for the private sector as well. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) under the New Deal provide historical precedents where we had a great push in public sector works that stimulated the economy.
The federal job guarantee would set an implicit floor on wages, healthcare provisions, and any number of working conditions that employers would have to contend with if they want to attract workers. It would dramatically reduce the need for a minimum wage. And it would empower workers by removing the threat of unemployment, which leaves the working class with little to no bargaining power.
The usual question is, “Can we finance this?” The short answer is yes. William Darity and I estimate that the average job directly created by the program would cost about $50,000, including worker compensation. So, if all 15 million workers unemployed at the height of the Great Recession were to apply, the cost of the program would amount to roughly $750 billion—less than the first $787 billion stimulus package, and substantially less than the $1.3 trillion first phase of the bank bailout. It is also worth keeping in mind all the anti-poverty and subsistence programs that we’re already spending money on, to the tune of some $800 billion. Of course, a federal job guarantee wouldn’t eliminate all of them, but it would dramatically reduce the amount that we’re already spending on subsistence programs in maintaining labor as surplus rather than engaged.
The neoliberal, post-racial discourse has defined fiscal budget reduction and economic growth—often, ironically, at odds with each other—as the nation’s economic priorities, while economic equity, fairness, and human capabilities take a distant backseat. A federal job guarantee would be a major step in drowning out the rhetoric and instead providing all Americans with the tangible dignity and economic security of a productive job.
Darrick Hamilton is the director of the doctoral program in public and urban policy, and jointly appointed as an associate professor of economics and urban policy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy and the Department of Economics, the New School for Social Research at the New School in New York.
This article was adapted from a talk given by the author at Grasping At the Root. It appears in Dissent as part of a roundtable convened for New Economy Week 2015: From Austerity to Prosperity, a week of online and in-person events being convened by the New Economy Coalition from November 9-15.