In January, the nation witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama amid one of the worst economic crises it has ever seen, making today the best of times and the worst of times for Black America, the National Urban League says in its 2009 State of Black America report. The oldest and largest U.S. organization dedicated to empowering African-Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream, the Urban League acknowledges that the entire country is hurting, but notes that African-Americans are disproportionately hurting worse.
One month after the report’s release in March, a CBS News/New York Times poll showed a majority of Blacks casting race relations in the United States in a positive light, the first time in CBS News polling history. In the poll, 59 percent of African-Americans (against 29 percent less than a year ago) characterize the relationship between Blacks and whites in America as “good.” The percentage of Blacks who say race relations are bad dropped to 30 percent from 59 percent last July. While 61 percent of Blacks say there has been real progress in getting rid of racial discrimination since the 1960s, up from 37 percent in December 1996, most feel that discrimination lingers. Asked who has a better chance to get ahead in U.S. society, 51 percent of Blacks said white people do, 44 percent said both races had equal opportunity, and 1 percent said Blacks had an advantage.
The annual Urban League report contains an Equality Index, which measures disparities between Blacks and whites in economics, education, health, civic engagement and social justice. In the 2009 index, the status of Blacks as compared to whites declined slightly, from 71.5 percent in 2008 to 71.1 percent this year. The only subindex that increased over the past year was in health — at about 1.1 percentage points — largely because the gap narrowed for those without health insurance. Poverty and homeownership rates declined for Blacks but increased for whites between 2003 and 2007. During the same period, both groups made progress in educational attainment, but the progress was slower for Blacks. While white children saw increases in “preprimary” enrollment of about 3 percent, Black children saw a decline of about 1 percent, causing the education gap to grow. The 2009 report shows the trend continues.
Economic trends between Blacks and whites were more similar than different in key areas like median household income, poverty, unemployment and home ownership. During the economic expansion period from 2001 to 2007 (known as the jobless recovery period), there was a decline in real median household income for Blacks and whites and an increase in the rate of poverty. Real median household income during the period declined 1.7 percent for Blacks and 3.9 percent for whites, and poverty rates increased 7.9 percent for Blacks and 5.1 percent for whites. By contrast, during the 1990s, while trends were still similar, African-Americans saw tremendous progress. For the duration of the ’90s expansion, real median household income grew by 23.6 percent for African- Americans and 13 percent for whites while poverty rates declined by 30.6 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
The State of Black America 2009 report notes that it will take more than just relying on the Obama administration to make a difference in urban America. While they should hold government officials accountable at all levels, individuals must participate in order for change to happen, it says.
Recommendations for President Obama
The National Urban League’s State of Black America 2009 report offers President Obama recommendations to help improve the lives of African-Americans in key areas.
Based on the four principles of the League’s “Opportunity Compact”— the opportunity to thrive, earn, own and prosper — the recommendations include:
Ensure that the Green revolution does not result in a Green divide. African-Americans should be made active participants in the Green jobs revolution. That means directing a percentage of all infrastructure monies to job training, job placement and job preparation for disadvantaged workers. Urban communities should be included in Green projects, such as improving the country’s energy grid, retrofitting homes and businesses with solar paneling and creating infrastructure for wind energy.
Pass the Homebuyers Bill of Rights. Awaiting action by the U.S. Senate, the Homebuyers Bill of Rights offers tools to help buyers get into homes and stay in them. It offers funding for homeownership education and counseling, financial literacy workshops, credit counseling, fair-housing advocacy and foreclosure prevention efforts, especially in underserved minority communities. Predatory lending practices are the biggest issue in housing for African-Americans and must be stopped.
Close the educational funding gap. Put the weight of the presidency behind efforts that will balance educational funding so all children have the same opportunity to learn and excel. Doing so will reduce dropout rates in some cities, and do more to identify and support highly qualified and effective teachers for all students.