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How Obama can help heal the race gap in America

If Obama wants to solve the daunting economic challenges the US faces, he must understand and address the unique obstacles facing diverse populations.

By Alan Jenkins / April 16, 2010

New York

African-American religious leaders emerged from a recent meeting with President Obama with words of praise and support for the job he is doing for the United States as a whole.

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That’s a marked contrast from the concerns among some black leaders and commentators who argue that the president is not doing enough to address disproportionate unemployment and economic distress in black communities.

These disparate messages reflect a complex reality: African-Americans and other people of color are an integral part of an America that faces daunting economic challenges. And solving the daunting economic challenges for the country means understanding and addressing the unique obstacles facing diverse populations.

A recovery strategy designed to work in New York, North Carolina, or Florida will not equally lift the prospects of Michigan, Louisiana, or California. Similarly, communities of color facing unique challenges – from concentration in hard-hit manufacturing and service sectors to persisting patterns of discrimination and segregation, to language and cultural barriers – cannot equally access initiatives that don’t explicitly consider their particular circumstances.

Thus, while the president is surely correct in responding to critics by explaining that his job “is to be president of the whole country,” he has been wrong in saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Being the president of all the people means attending to the differing challenges they face, as well as the common ones. And decades of economic data show that improving economic prospects for the nation as a whole does not reliably close gaps in economic security or opportunity – or plain old human suffering – for communities of color.

In 2000, after a decade of remarkable economic growth, the poverty rate among African-Americans and Latinos was still 2-1/2 times greater than for white Americans. And from 2001 to 2003, as the economy slowed, poverty rates for most communities of color increased more dramatically than they did for whites, widening the racial poverty gap. From 2004 to 2005, while the overall number of poor Americans declined by almost 1 million, poverty rates for most communities of color actually increased.

Similarly today, the “green shoots” of nascent recovery are not equally reaching African-Americans or Latinos. In March 2010, the unemployment rate was 8.8 percent for whites, 16.5 percent for African-Americans, and 12.6 percent for Latinos.