A score of years has zipped by and it’s time to see what that score has meant for Black America, which can certainly count the ascendency of President Barack Obama at least as a symbol of progressive change.
In 1993, when The Network Journal was launched, President Bill Clinton was moving into the White House and there was a general glow of optimism and glee from Black Americans. Five years later, as if to encapsulate his popularity with Black Americans, author and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison dubbed him the “first Black President.”
Style and symbol don’t always add up to substance, and while Clinton during his two terms did appoint seven key Black cabinet members, several African-American federal judges and commission chairs, and a number of federal employees this was more than any previous president. Black homeownership was up, the unemployment rate though always higher than whites was nonetheless at an all-time low, and college enrollment for African-Americans increased during the Clinton years, according to the National Urban League’s “The State of Black America 2000.”
Less admirable was Clinton’s omnibus crime bill that stopped short of reforming the unfair sentencing on possession of powder and crack cocaine, and perhaps most grievous was his welfare reform bill that brought to a close the open-ended guarantee of federal aid and shifted the responsibility for public assistance to the states. Obviously, Black America suffered disproportionately from this decision and action.
Two years ago, when the Occupy Movement began its demonstrations, the slogan “We are the 99 percent” commanded the most attention. What it underscored was the disparity between the rich and the poor. In effect, the richest 1 percent of Americans — those making nearly $400,000 or more — has enjoyed income growth of more than 30 percent. Meanwhile, average Americans have incomes that currently hover in and around $55,000 annually. And, of course, in this regard we are talking about white Americans because this amount is usually $20,000 more than income earned per year by Black American households.
According to one report, African-American income increased dramatically during the 1990s, and by 2000 nearly 58 percent of African-American households were earning an annual income of $35,000, which was an increase of nearly 40 percent since 1970. Ten years later though, mainly due to the recession, these figures would decline appreciably, with only 46 percent of African-American households earning as much as they did in 2000. Even more disturbing was the increase in the number of Black families relegated below the poverty line, with some 25 percent in 2011 with annual incomes under $15,000.
One of the most dramatic developments in the Black community is the widening gap between the Black middle class and the so-called Black lower class. Many pundits predict this disparity will result in a critical confrontation between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in the very near future over the ever-diminishing vital material resources.
A cursory glance back across the last 20 years summons the adage that “the more things change the more they remain the same.” There is more than a morsel of truth in this saying when you consider that, despite a Black president, Attorney General, and countless Black elected officials and corporate managers, we are still eons from a post-racial society. We don’t have to look too far to recognize the continuing disregard for Black life and opportunity.
Yes, there are remarkable changes as a result of globalization and unheard of advances in technology, but some of the social, political and economic norms of the past are seemingly implacable — and in too many instances have gotten worse. The recent Supreme Court decision that eviscerated the core of the hard-earned Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a major setback for Black Americans, as was the court’s verdict on affirmative action, which it kicked back to a lower court to adjudicate. Voter suppression that stems from the retrenchment strategy of right-wing GOP and Tea Party advocates is reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws that did everything possible to deny African-Americans the franchise.
Black Americans are reminded, too, of the ineffectiveness of the criminal justice system when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman in the “murder” of Trayvon Martin. For many older Black Americans, it was a flashback to the heinous and brutal killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the summer of 1955 in Money, Miss., for speaking to a white woman.
Stop, question and frisk in New York City, in which over a decade or so more than 4 million Black and Hispanic youths were stopped and searched by New York Police Department officers with only a smidgen of arrests, alarmed the Black community, which viewed the policy as no more than racial profiling — again, a terrible memory of bygone days we thought were bygone.
On some issues, white America is like the canary in a mine tunnel, that is, if things are bad for white America in various walks of life and economy, then you can bet your bottom dollar they are much worse for Black America. For example, if white corporations are fretful and are finding it economically impossible to survive without mergers, without cost cutting, layoffs, and furloughs, then there’s little reason to expect Black American businesses are doing any better.
Practically every major media company, newspaper, magazine and journal has faced economic problems, forcing them to curtail, cut back or phase out some element of its company. The disappearance of the morning edition of major daily newspapers; the retreat of magazines to the Internet; and the merger of large publishing companies are frightening indications of widespread downturns — downturns that have doubly affected Black companies, forcing many of them to close shop entirely, and permanently.
Diversification was an option that kept some African-American businesses afloat, but how long the resort to expanding an operation will last is anybody’s guess in this crash-and-burn society that has witnessed the closing of banks and cities declaring bankruptcy. Small businesses, as we know, are the backbone of the U.S. economy, and a key component of that spine is small Black businesses that are all but extinct in this digital age of giant retailers.
To be sure, we can point to a number of relative gains over the last 20 years since the reign of Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Tupac and Whitney Houston. While these celebrities are no longer commanding the headlines, no longer daily images of our success and power, we are still here doing our best to keep you abreast of the good and bad, the sweet and sour of business, politics and culture. And our ability to serve is something we look forward to in the same way we hope we can count on your support for the next score of years.