We knew that 2009 would be a historic year, with the inauguration of the first African American president and the deepening of what is likely to be the most serious fiscal crisis since the Great Depression.
Many American Blacks today are already experiencing a silent economic depression that, in terms of unemployment, equals or exceeds the Great Depression of 1929. Almost 12 percent of Blacks are unemployed; this is expected to increase to nearly 20 percent by 2010. Among young Black males aged 16-19, the unemployment rate is 32.8 percent, while their white counterparts are at 18.3 percent.
Overall, 24 percent of Blacks and 21 percent of Latinos are in poverty, versus 8 percent of whites.
In the corporate world, we are seeing the highest executive pay and the biggest bailout in history. CEO pay is 344 times that of the average worker, not including perks like bonuses, stock options, corporate jets and housing subsidies. The riches of a few mask the deepening recession in the working class and the depression in communities of color.
Extreme economic inequality (which the U.S. experienced in the 1920s and is again experiencing now) is often a key indicator of recession and/or depression. The Black depression of today may well foreshadow the depth and length of the recession the whole country entered in December 2007.
A deep recession would see median family income decline by 4 percent. Thirty-three percent of Blacks and 41 percent of Latinos would drop out of the middle class. The overall national rate would be 25 percent.
Economically, Blacks and Latinos have suffered disproportionately because of structural racism and the web of policies that evolved from it. Eliminating the racial wealth divide is an essential step toward eliminating institutional racism. A comprehensive economic policy could deal a knockout blow to structural racism and raise awareness of individual racism. The path forward abounds with possibilities for shrinking the racial wealth divide and further healing the racism that still afflicts our nation.
If we institute systematic wealth-building programs that help everyone, if we repair and reinvigorate the decimated watchdog policies governing all aspects of home ownership; if we target 2009 economic stimulus programs to investment, not investment in tax breaks for the rich, but in the building blocks of the American dream — affordable housing, education, job creation and savings among low- and middle-income people — we will make strides toward a more balanced economy.
Our nation’s economic policies have enabled the top 10 percent to accumulate 68 percent of the wealth, while sheltering the wealthy from sharing the nation’s risk. The children of the wealthy are not marching off to war because their economic alternatives are bleak. The rising cost of medical care does not require American millionaires and billionaires to cut back on food in order to pay medical bills. Thousands of additional layoffs will not harm the financial security of those in the owning class.
Fairer policies would share the risk of our entrepreneurial economy by helping balance the economic burdens among all of us, rather than piling them onto people of color, the poor and the middle class. Revoking the tax deduction for expensive second and third houses, ending offshore tax havens and policies that make it profitable to ship American jobs overseas, and calling — with a united voice — for those in the upper quintile of income and wealth to participate more fully in bearing the burden of fixing the economy would spread the risk more fairly.
Fairer policies would support low-cost mortgages, better and cheaper medical care for those making less than $200,000 a year, strengthening Social Security, and freezing or raising wealth taxes like the capital gains and estate tax.
Finally, we need to recommit ourselves, via policy and our unified voice, to affirmative action. We need recognition of and apology for the U.S. centuries of slavery and segregation. We need a commitment by the nation and its communities to acknowledge and repudiate the institutional and individual racism — epitomized by today’s Black depression —that still pervades our society.
With such actions we can move forward. The economic path behind us is collapsing in rubble. Looking backwards, we can freeze in fear, or we can turn toward a future whose economic health and fairness we jointly create.
Lawrence Thibeaux is president of the Northern California District Council, International Longshore and Warehouse Union. This article is based on his presentation at a Feb. 21 African American History Month celebration sponsored by the People’s Weekly World in Oakland, Calif.