A day after Obama laid out before Congress his plan to kick-start job growth, many
blacks hoped it would translate into reduced misery for them over the
coming months. While the country’s unemployment rate stands at 9.1
percent, black unemployment has hit 16.7 percent, the highest since
1984. Unemployment among male blacks is at 18 percent, and black
teens are unemployed at a rate of 46.5 percent.
The early signs of their reaction were positive.
Social media sites were abuzz with highlights from the president’s plan. Amid the
comments were excited responses to the proposal, especially from the
black community. Twitter was full of similar bursts of excitement
over the plan, with some black Tweeters defending the president and
applauding his message. One user tweeted: “Taking a sharp tone
’cause the NumbersDontLie! Pass this bill and put America back to
Prominent African Americans like Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American
Express and Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia, quickly applauded
the plan. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has been one of the most
vocal advocates for dealing more effectively with black unemployment,
but she was enthusiastic.
For the president, it was a welcome change in tone after a steady drumbeat of criticism
from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who held their own
job fairs and town hall meetings while protesting that Obama’s jobs
tour across America last month bypassed black communities.
The caucus’ urban blitz cleared a path for the country’s first black president to act,
“I can see that our handprint is all over it,” Waters said of Obama’s plan. “We
upped the ante a little bit by pushing, being a bit more vocal. This
was not done in a way to threaten the president but to make it easier
for him. We think we helped him to be able to formulate a response.”
The jobs plan was praised by Ralph Everett, president and chief executive of the Joint
Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan black think
Although the president did not specifically mention high unemployment among
blacks, black people “are sophisticated enough to understand”
how their communities will benefit, U.S. Trade Representative Ron
Kirk said Friday.
“Obviously, there is a debate raging, saying that we should come out and say this
expressly for the black and Latino community,” Kirk said. “But
this president got elected spectacularly on his premise that we are
not a black America, a brown America, a white America. We are one
The White House moved quickly to capitalize politically on the good will, emailing an
extraordinary blast of supportive statements from elected officials,
union leaders and interest groups within minutes after Obama spoke
On Friday, while the president pushed his American Jobs Act in Richmond, Va., his aides
promoted targeted relief to Hispanics, teachers, police officers,
construction workers, small businesses and others.
Administration officials said the plan would extend unemployment benefits and
provide support for 1.4 million blacks who have been unemployed six
months or longer. It also would provide summer and subsidized jobs
for youth, help boost the paychecks of 20 million black workers
through an extension and expansion of the payroll tax, and benefit,
in some way, more than 100,000 black-owned small businesses.
“With over 16 percent of African-Americans out of work and over 1 million
African-Americans out of work over six months, I think the president
believes this is a serious problem and the onus is on us to do
everything we can to tackle this,” Danielle Gray, deputy
director of the National Economic Council, told reporters.
White House adviser Valerie Jarrett promoted Obama’s plan on Steve Harvey’s syndicated
morning radio show, saying it would help “every part of our
country, but particularly those who are the most vulnerable, who have
been struggling the hardest, who have been trying to make ends meet
and all they need is a little help from their government.”
A factor in the early enthusiasm in Obama’s plan with blacks is that most accept
that, as the country’s first black president, there are limits to
what he can do about their specific problems — especially as he
heads into the 2012 campaign.
“Do I think he’s doing everything he can? Yes, of course,” said Tonia
Thomas, 44, a divorced Atlanta mother who was unemployed for more
than a year before taking a $30,000 pay cut to work as a hotel clerk.
“A lot of what’s going on is being used to exclude people of
color in general. I don’t know what he can do.”
The president has to be careful in targeting his efforts, some say.
“The more he talks about race, the more votes he loses,” said Randall
Kennedy, author of a new book exploring racial politics and the Obama
presidency. “Barack Obama had to overcome his blackness to
become president … and he’s going to have to overcome it to be
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, an Obama supporter who engaged in damage control for the
president this week, said black Americans “need to burst this
false notion” that the president should put black unemployment
on par with overall unemployment.
“If leaders in our community want to push him to lay out a black agenda,
I believe that will end up disserving the black community and help
elect people who certainly don’t have a past history about caring
about the interests of the African-American community,” Reed
said after Obama’s speech. “This debate is weakening the
president and puts him in a political position where he has to do
something to confirm his blackness.”