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.

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.

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.

Even more striking are the disparate underemployment rates, which track unemployed workers actively seeking work, involuntary part-time workers, and marginally attached workers. At the end of 2009, the rate was 14.5 percent for whites, as compared with 25 percent for both Latinos and African-Americans.

Fortunately, Mr. Obama can be both the president of the entire country and also expand opportunities for all of its people and communities.

For the president, the first step is to explain why it is in the interests of all Americans to create more economic opportunities – and also to make sure that everyone can make the most of these opportunities.. The president has been eloquent in explaining that we are all in it together as a nation, and that narrative must include the reality that America cannot recover and prosper if we leave large swaths of our populace behind.

Second, the administration must do a better job of tracking and reporting the extent to which job creation, foreclosure prevention, business development, and other recovery efforts are reaching diverse communities and populations. Without that basic information it’s impossible to know whether efforts are fairly and effectively reaching Americans who most need them.

And third, there are specific policy approaches that the administration can employ today that will help lift all boats while closing the distance between them.

These include employing “opportunity impact statements” for projects receiving federal funds, to ensure that they create expanded and more widely shared opportunity. It also includes incentives for hiring and programs in ZIP Codes with double-digit unemployment; and ideas for focusing existing and future efforts to rebuild the “infrastructure of opportunity” – public transportation, school facilities, affordable housing, and community clinics – in neighborhoods that disproportionately lack those steppingstones to prosperity. Integrating apprenticeships and on-the-job training for disconnected workers with longer-term job prospects in growing high-tech and green industries is a crucial piece of that puzzle.

As president of all the people, it is normal for Obama to have differences of opinion and approach with particular constituencies over particular issues, and his relationships with black communities and black leaders will have their share of tensions.

These tensions can be cynical and caustic, or they can be healthy and constructive. The president and his critics should choose the latter, and thus open the path of progress, for all of America.

Alan Jenkins is the cofounder and executive director of The Opportunity Agenda, a New York-based nonprofit.

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