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Tomgram: Andy Kroll, The 60-Year Unemployment Scandal

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

Americans care about them more than any other issue, so every poll tells us. The presidential candidates are already crafting their stump speeches and talking points around them. President Obama has seen the writing on the wall and regularly tailors his message to emphasize how many of them he has created. I'm talking, of course, about jobs.

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These days, politicians are falling all over themselves to explain why they're the right candidates for the job of creating more jobs. Here was the president at an LED lighting manufacturing plant in North Carolina recently: "Today the single most serious economic problem we face is getting people back to work. I will not be satisfied 'till everyone who wants a good job that offers some security has a good job that offers some security." And here was GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, at the official unveiling of his presidential campaign at a farm in New Hampshire: "From my first day in office, my number-one job will be to see that America once again is number one in job creation."

Such comments offer a preview of what, given dismally high unemployment figures, will surely be a job-centric 2012 presidential campaign. And TomDispatch can offer its own jobs guarantee for the coming campaign season: for all the verbiage about jobs that will be coming your way, there's one part of the American jobs crisis deserving screaming headlines that the politicians won't be talking about. And yet it's a scandal that goes back decades, as TomDispatch associate editor Andy Kroll points out. It should be the shame of the nation.  Instead it's the jobs crisis we know nothing about. Tom

What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Jobs
How Racism, Global Economics, and the New Jim Crow Fuel Black America's Crippling Jobs Crisis

By Andy Kroll

Like the country it governs, Washington is a city of extremes. In a car, you can zip in bare moments from northwest District of Columbia, its streets lined with million-dollar homes and palatial embassies, its inhabitants sporting one of the nation's lowest jobless rates, to Anacostia, a mostly forgotten neighborhood in southeastern D.C. with one of the highest unemployment rates anywhere in America. Or, if you happen to be jobless, upset about it, and living in that neighborhood, on a crisp morning in March you could have joined an angry band of protesters marching on the nearby 11th Street Bridge.

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They weren't looking for trouble. They were looking for work.

Those protesters, most of them black, chanted and hoisted signs that read "D.C. JOBS FOR D.C. RESIDENTS" and "JOBS OR ELSE." The target of their outrage: contractors hired to replace the very bridge under their feet, a $300 million project that will be one of the largest in District history. The problem: few D.C. citizens, which means few African Americans, had so far been hired. "It's deplorable," insisted civil rights attorney Donald Temple, "that... you can find men from West Virginia to work in D.C. You can find men from Maryland to work in D.C. And you can find men from Virginia to work in D.C. But you can't find men and women in D.C. to work in D.C."

The 11th Street Bridge arches over the slow-flowing Anacostia River, connecting the poverty-stricken, largely black Anacostia neighborhood with the rest of the District. By foot the distance is small; in opportunity and wealth, it couldn't be larger. At one end of the bridge the economy is booming even amid a halting recovery and jobs crisis. At the other end, hard times, always present, are worse than ever.

Live in Washington long enough and you'll hear someone mention "east of the river ." That's D.C.'s version of "the other side of the tracks," the place friends warn against visiting late at night or on your own. It's home to District Wards 7 and 8, neighborhoods with a long, rich history. Once known as Uniontown, Anacostia was one of the District's first suburbs; Frederick Douglass, nicknamed the "Sage of Anacostia," once lived there, as did the poet Ezra Pound and singer Marvin Gaye. Today the area's unemployment rate is officially nearly 20%. District-wide, it's 9.8%, a figure that drops as low as 3.6% in the whiter, more affluent northwestern suburbs.

D.C.'s divide is America's writ large. Nationwide, the unemployment rate for black workers at 16.2% is almost double the 9.1% rate for the rest of the population. And it's twice the 8% white jobless rate.

The size of those numbers can, in part, be chalked up to the current jobs crisis in which black workers are being decimated. According to Duke University public policy expert William Darity, that means blacks are "the last to be hired in a good economy, and when there's a downturn, they're the first to be released."

That may account for the soaring numbers of unemployed African Americans, but not the yawning chasm between the black and white employment rates, which is no artifact of the present moment. It's a problem that spans generations, goes remarkably unnoticed, and condemns millions of black Americans to a life of scraping by. That unerring, unchanging gap between white and black employment figures goes back at least 60 years. It should be a scandal, but whether on Capitol Hill or in the media it gets remarkably little attention. Ever.

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The 60-Year Scandal

The unemployment lines run through history like a pair of train tracks. Since the 1940s, the jobless rate for blacks in America has held remarkably, if grimly, steady at twice the rate for whites. The question of why has vexed and divided economists, historians, and sociologists for nearly as long.

For years the sharpest minds in academia pointed to upheaval in the American economy as the culprit. In his 1996 book When Work Disappears, the sociologist William Julius Wilson depicted the forces of globalization, a slumping manufacturing sector, and suburban flight at work in Chicago as the drivers of growing joblessness and poverty in America's inner cities and among its black residents.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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