(See parts one and two.)

In many ways, the discussion of race in America, particularly as it relates to today’s issues (the economy, health care, education), brings to mind the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Different people have a firm grasp on part of the truth in the middle of the room – be it the tail, the trunk, an ear, or a leg – but no one seems able to look at the thing itself. Three examples of a similar phenomenon reveal some of the difficulties in our national discussion on race.

During the press conference concerning his first 100 days in office, BET reporter Andre Showell asked Obama about African American unemployment.

As the entire nation tries to climb out of this deep recession, in communities of color, the circumstances are far worse, the black unemployment rate, as you know, is in the double digits. And in New York City, for example, the black unemployment rate for men is near 50 percent. My question to you tonight is: given this unique and desperate circumstance, what specific policies can you point to that will target these communities and what’s the timetable for us to see tangible results?

And in his answer, Obama reached out and firmly grabbed hold of one part of the elephant in the room.

When we put in place additional dollars for community health centers to ensure that people are still getting the help that they need, or we expand health insurance to millions more children through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, again, those probably disproportionately impact African-American and Latino families simply because they’re the ones who are most vulnerable. They have got higher rates of uninsured in their communities.

So my general approach is that if the economy is strong, that will lift all boats as long as it is also supported by, for example, strategies around college affordability and job training, tax cuts for working families as opposed to the wealthiest that level the playing field and ensure bottom-up economic growth. 

And I’m confident that that will help the African-American community live out the American dream at the same time that it’s helping communities all across the country.”

His answer echoed and expanded upon his video-taped message to the State of Black America forum a month earlier. He’s not entirely wrong, though it depends on what one means by a strong economy. As pointed out in the State of Black America report, the “rising tide” of the so-called recovery during the Bush years did not lift all boats.

Most yachts, yes. But all boats? Not by a long shot. But an economic program focused on improving the circumstances of all Americans is likely to improve the lives of many African-Americans, because we live with the same overall economic realities. (A fact missed during the campaign, when it seemed working class whites lived in a completely different economic universe, where rising prices, stagnant wages, job loss, foreclosure, etc., weren’t happening to anyone else, or anyone else that mattered.)

There is hope, however that stimulus funds, though not specifically targeted to African-American communities, will help. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, in response to an inquiry by the editor of The St. Louis American, outlined how portions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

  • General: The majority of the provisions in this recovery and reinvestment plan will assist African-Americans, who have been dramatically impacted during these tough times, in making it through this period with tax cuts for 95 percent of families, programs including extension of unemployment benefits, COBRA healthcare benefits, and food stamps and temporary assistance for needy families (TANF), while also preparing them for new opportunities with training for new jobs in existing and emerging industries.
  • Tax Cuts: This plan seeks to put money in the hands of consumers as quickly as possible through tax cuts for 95 percent of families. This is especially important for African- Americans who have experienced a reversal of fortune in the gains in wages and salary reached during the 1990s compared to others in the workforce. This immediate infusion of resources will not only allow them to purchase the items they need for their families, but also help rebuild our economy.
  • Job Creation: The unemployment rate for African-Americans was 12.1 percent and had risen to 12.6 percent when new job numbers were announced Feb. 6. This plan will create jobs with its investments in rebuilding roads and bridges and retrofitting government buildings while also working to help prepare job seekers for the 21st century economy with training for new “green jobs” and other emerging industries. The key is ensuring that African-Americans have access to information about all of these opportunities.
  • Education: Right now 95 percent of African-American children rely on public schools in America, yet a great number of these systems lack the funding they need to deliver the education that our children deserve and the facilities themselves are generally inadequate. This plan makes a historic investment in school modernization sufficient to renovate and modernize 10,000 schools, which also saves or creates jobs.
  • Healthcare: African-Americans suffer from higher percentages of chronic diseases such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes while also suffering from a lack of access to quality care. Therefore during a time when many who rely on receiving healthcare through their employers are losing jobs, access to quality healthcare is an even greater concern. This plan offers a new tax credit to help families keep their health insurance through COBRA as well as a new option in Medicaid for low-income people who lack access to COBRA. Adjustments will also be made in funding formulas for state Medicaid programs so that Medicaid and SCHIP are not impacted by state budget shortfalls, protecting 20 million people whose eligibility might be at risk.
  • Public Services: Local governments are threatened with budget cuts that could impair services, including support from police and fire departments. No community that relies on these services to protect them should have to endure cuts in these areas. This plan invests $4 billion for state and local law enforcement funding.

In addition, the stimulus would provide help to historically black colleges and universities hit hard by the economic downturn, in the form of funding for infrastructure projects on HBCU campuses, technology improvements, and increased federal grants for students from low income families.

Yet, even as the stimulus funds begin to flow into communities across the country, the governors of several southern states are rejecting or attempting to reject stimulus funds funds.

Governors across the country are clamoring for a piece of the stimulus, eager to avoid laying off state employees, hoping to put their unemployed citizens back to work and trying to avoid widespread furloughs as budgets bleed red ink. They know that their citizens want to keep libraries open, teachers in the classroom, cops on the beat and firefighters ready to protect people and property.

Except in the South. Southern governors-Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Haley Barbour of Mississippi-have been pressing the case that the federal stimulus bill is a mistake; they argue the emerging Republican orthodoxy that tax cuts are the only effective way to pull the country out of an economic black hole.

With 11 percent unemployment, South Carolina trails only hard-hit Michigan. Nonetheless, Governor Sanford plans to reject funds that would extend unemployment insurance, not to mention federal fiscal stabilization monies slated for schools and public safety, unless he receives assurance that he may use it instead to pay down the state’s debt. As ProPublica reports, the state is about to lay off teachers in large numbers as a consequence.

This hardhearted pattern is not new. It is a replay of the Southern rejection of Roosevelt’s New Deal. During the bleak years of the Depression, politicians below the Mason-Dixon line refused to provide relief to the poor and rebelled against federal intrusion into social policy. When most state governments were hemorrhaging, local and state governments across the South actually ran surpluses. How? They fired government workers and slashed funds for education and healthcare. 

Their reasons, stemming from political philosophies and/or fiscal priorities, are perhaps not specifically related to race (at least not publicly). But according to census data, these states are among those with the largest African American populations. Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi and Georgia (where the governor has considered rejecting some stimulus funds, though his state would gain 106,000 jobs in the bargain) are all among the states with an estimated African-American population of 1 million or more. They also make the lists of states with the highest percentage of African-Americans in the population, and where blacks are the largest minority group.

In terms of joblessness, among the states in question, South Carolina had the highest unemployment rate in November 2008 at 8.9%, followed by Georgia (7.5%), and Mississippi (7.2%). All three were among the 20 states with the highest unemployment rates, with only Louisiana (5.3%) failing to make the cut. As of March 2009, South Carolina still held the lead with an unemployment rate of 11.4%, followed by Mississippi (9.4%), Georgia (9.2%) and Louisiana (5.8%).

Census data on poverty, reunites all four states in the top twenty, with Mississippi in the number one position with the largest percentage of people living below the poverty level (20.5), followed by Louisiana (18.6) in the number two spot, South Carolina (15.0) at no. 12, and Georgia (14.3) at no. 13. Breaking state poverty data down by ethnicity, reveals higher poverty rates among blacks than among whites in all four states. In Mississippi, the rate of poverty among African-Americans is 43.6%, compared to 16.1 % for whites. In Louisiana it’s 42.1%, compared with 13.1% for whites. In Georgia it’s 31.3%, compared with 10.7% for whites. In South Carolina it’s 30.6%, compare with 12.5% for whites.

Taken together, the data suggests not only that southern Republican governors’ refusal of stimulus funds (not to mention Republicans’ opposition to and efforts to kill the stimulus) would have a devastating impact on the growing ranks of the unemployed and those living in poverty, but that African-Americans are likely to be disproportionately represented among in both categories, and therefore disproportionately impacted.

And African-Americans in these states know it, and experience a lot of anxiety as a result.

Almost two of every three black Southerners are worried they could lose their jobs this year in what they see as a deteriorating economy, according to a Winthrop University/ETV poll.

Just under 62 percent of black Southerners polled Feb. 6-22 in South Carolina and 10 other Southern states said they were very or somewhat concerned about the possibility of losing their job in the next year.

That concern is far higher than in the U.S. population as a whole.

…South Carolina’s unemployment rate was 9.5 percent in December, the most recent month for which figures are available.

The state’s unemployment rate is the third-highest in the country.

In 2008, South Carolina’s monthly unemployment rate averaged 6.7 percent. The black unemployment rate was higher, averaging 10.1 percent.

In each of the 11 states polled, the black jobless rate was significantly higher than the unemployment rate of the state as a whole.

From their communities, they hear America’s economy coughing and sneezing, and know that whatever is ailing the overall economy, they’re likely to catch it too – only much worse.

Despite all of the above, when Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) grabbed a handful of elephant, people were somewhat shocked when he announced that the huge, unseen/unrecognized creature in the room might be an elephant.

The highest-ranking black congressman said Thursday that opposition to the federal stimulus package by southern GOP governors is “a slap in the face of African-Americans.” U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said he was insulted when the governors of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and his home state, which have large black populations, said they might not accept some of the money from the $787 billion stimulus package.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday he would accept the money, and none of the others has rejected it outright. The Republican governors of Idaho and Alaska also said they had reservations about whether the money would come with too many strings attached, but Clyburn said he was particularly taken aback by southern governors who said they might decline it.

These four governors represent states that are in the proverbial black belt,” Clyburn said. 

The response, predictably, was swift. A spokesperson for South Carolina’s Republican governor accused Clyburn of “playing the race card,” which was followed similar responses from the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana (the latter, Bobby Jindall, is the son of Indian immigrants), that their opposition to the stimulus was not racially motivated. Other conservatives pointed out that Idaho governor Butch Otter and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, both states with very small African-American populations, refuted Clyburn’s “black belt” statement.

Finally, Clyburn himself found it necessary to walk back from his earlier statements, telling the media (through a spokesperson) that he didn’t mean that the governors’ decisions were racially motivated, but that their opposition to the stimulus would hurt African-Americans in their states.

But Clyburn wasn’t wrong. African American residents in those southern states are likely to be among those most in need of the services and opportunities stimulus funds might provide. The governors’ decisions to refuse stimulus funds is to abandon both poor and African-American residents of their states in the face of an economic downturn that hits them harder than the general population, in the same way that victims of Katrina were abandoned in the hurricane’s aftermath.

The decisions of those southern governors, may not have been directly motivated by race, but it’s doubtful that those governors are completely ignorant of the data on race, joblessness, and poverty in their states, or the impact of their decisions on poor and African-American residents in their states. (Though a now-former Republican governor of Texas managed to remain unaware of, and to even deny the reality of hunger statistics in his state.) And their decisions are in keeping with a history of southern state governments’ policy-making in matters just like the economic downturn and the stimulus, that – due to the demographics of their states – would have negative impacts on many African-Americans residents.

Not just that, but their decisions extend and perpetuate conditions that have deep, but too often unacknowledged, roots in the history of race in their states and in this country. And that’s what Clyburn came dangerously close to addressing too openly.

Someone has been lifting their blindfold. You see, in some versions of the parable above, the men are not truly blind, but blinded, or blindfolded by their teacher before encountering the elephant. They need only remove their blindfolds to see it clearly.

But when the elephant in the room is race, our blindfolds usually stay pretty firmly in place. They had better, as another public figure found out when he grabbed a handful of elephant himself, and attempted to lift not just his blindfold, but everyone else’s too.




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