“Are you better off four years ago than you are today? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago?” These are the questions that then-candidate Ronald Reagan asked voters in 1980 to ask themselves before casting a ballot for him or President Jimmy Carter, the most recent Democrat to serve just one term in the White house.
Republican presidential candidates like Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann have suggested that African-Americans think about how their lives have changed since January 2009, when the nation elected its first African-American president. And according to Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead, “the giant step forward” that America took then has turned out to be “a giant step back” for Black Americans.
“Not since the 1960s, when scores of American cities were shaken by one race riot after another, have African-Americans faced such deadly conditions: high expectations and hopes running up against a reality of vanishing jobs, shrinking government budgets and a fractured and fragmented leadership,” Mead writes in The American Interest. “Barring an unlikely change in economic fortunes, we could soon face a new period of explosive anger and even violence; alternatively, the urban poor could fall prey to a new kind of passive despair and anomie as hope dies on one inner city street after another.”
Unemployment is the primary contributor to African-Americans’ economic decline, Mead says, although one-quarter of employed African-Americans have college degrees, higher earning power and lower rates of unemployment. As a result, he believes there is a widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots in the Black community, and as the more fortunate among them grow more successful and worldly they leave the others behind.
Mead believes a similar divide is taking place within civic organizations and among individuals and groups involved in politics. The more talented African-American leaders are broadening their horizons far beyond traditional organizations like the NAACP or the National Urban League.
“Black politicians who can break out of the ‘race market’ get to be governors, senators and president; those who identify as ‘race politicians’ get to be aldermen or, at most, members of the House of Representatives,” Mead writes. He notes that candidate Obama talked more about the war in Iraq than the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and as president he has avoided making specific moves to address the bleak Black unemployment rate and other issues that disproportionately affect them. And, Mead adds, like Obama, “the educational, intellectual and political elite among Blacks” is out of touch with “the realities, values and emotions of the Black lower and middle class.”
Mead believes there is “a mounting frustration among many young and poor Blacks about the failure of ‘hope and change’ to make their lives better in any way,” which could boil over.
(Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)