Duke University Professor William A. Darity Jr. on How Barack Obama Failed Black Americans

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The country’s first black president never pursued policies bold enough to close the racial wealth gap.

Born in 1953, I am a child of the waning years of legal segregation in the United States. My parents, on the other hand, spent about 40 years of their lives under Jim Crow, and all of my grandparents lived most of their lives under official American apartheid. At the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, my mother and all four of my grandparents were deceased. But my father was alive and well—and absolutely thrilled to have lived to see the election of a black man as president of the United States. Usually deeply cynical about American politics and politicians, my dad could not comprehend my deep reservations about Barack Obama’s leadership. Indeed, he viewed any criticism of Obama as bringing aid and comfort to white supremacists.

My father hardly was alone among black Americans, across all generations. The near complete unanimity of passionate black American admiration for Obama carried with it an absolute resistance to hearing any complaints about the black president. And, indeed, there was much to admire: an exceptional resume, an attractive family with a black wife who is his professional and intellectual equal, handsome and greying toward distinguished maturity, a strategically wise moderate progressive political position, and a place as the—sometimes self-professed—messianic fulfillment of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. For many black Americans, the ascent of Barack Obama to the presidency was equivalent to the moment of jubilee.

An extraordinarily disciplined individual, Barack Obama preempted the smallest hint of scandal by admitting that he had smoked pot during his youth. He even crafted a narrative of a rise from adversity—growing up successfully by the efforts of a single parent despite a missing father—albeit a white single mother with a Ph.D. whose own parents were affluent residents of Hawaii. With every drop of respectability in place, his somewhat icy intellect coupled with his enthusiasm for basketball and for black music across a half century of styles, he was an inordinately appealing candidate, with an ideal combination of the cool and the rational.

For many white Americans his elections confirmed their belief that American racism is a thing of the past. But an underemphasized dimension of each of Obama’s campaigns—a dimension patently relevant to the most recent presidential election—he only received a minority of votes among whites who cast ballots. In fact, he would have been swept away in a landslide had only whites been the voters. In 2008, 55 percent of white voters cast their ballots for John McCain; in 2012, 59 percent of white voters cast their ballots for Mitt Romney.

Nevertheless, some of those white voters who did not vote for him took his eight years as president as license to assert that the country is post-racial, even while attacking him with both veiled and overt racial slurs. But racism is organic to American life, and it sits at the core of persistence of racial economic inequality. In his fascinating profile of Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to the “mark of a system engineered to place one on top of the other”—to place white over black. He offers some examples: the facts that blacks with a college degree have an unemployment rate almost as high as white high school graduates, that completion of a college education leads blacks to carry twice the level of student loan debt than whites four years after the degree, that blacks experience a significantly higher default rate on their loans, that black households have one-seventh of the wealth of white households, and that black families with $100,000 or more in income reside “in more disadvantaged neighborhoods than white families making less than $30,000.”

Sadly, these actually are softer illustrations of “the mark of the system” than findings that have emerged from research I have done with Darrick Hamilton, Anne Price, and other members of the National Asset Scorecard for Communities of Color (NASCC) research team. We find a much higher discrepancy between black and white wealth than the gap that Coates reports. Blacks with some college education actually have higher unemployment rates than whites who never finished high school. At each level of education, the black rate of unemployment is twice as high as the white rate. Moreover, the relative economic position on virtually all indicators, including the racial unemployment rate gap, has not improved since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Estimates generated from the 2013 round of the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances indicate that black households have one-thirteenth of the wealth of white households at the median. We have concluded that the average black household would have to save 100 percent of its income for three consecutive years to close the wealth gap. The key source of the black-white wealth gap is the intergenerational effects of transfers of resources. White parents have far greater resources to give to their children via gifts and inheritances, so that the typical white young adult starts their working lives with a much greater initial net worth than the typical black young adult. These intergenerational effects are blatantly non-meritocratic.

Indeed, the history of black wealth deprivation, from the failure to provide ex-slaves with 40 acres and a mule to the violent destruction of black property in white riots to the seizure and expropriation of black-owned land to the impact of racially restrictive covenants on homeownership to the discriminatory application of policies like the GI Bill and the FHA, created the foundation for a perpetual racial wealth gap.

Blacks working full time have lower levels of wealth than whites who are unemployed. Blacks in the third quintile of the income distribution have less wealth (or a lower net worth) than whites in the lowest quintile. Even more damning for any presumption that America is free of racism is our finding that black households whose heads have college degrees have $10,000 less in net worth than white households whose heads who never finished high school. As we point out in our report, “Umbrellas Don’t Make It Rain”, studying hard and working hard does not enable blacks to eliminate the racial wealth gap. Doing the right thing is far from enough.

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Source: The Atlantic | William A. Darity Jr.