by Hugh Hamilton
January 16, 2009

Expect a surge of “post-racial” rationalization to infiltrate the public discourse once Barack Obama is officially ensconced at the Oval Office.

With a black man in the White House, the argument goes, what more compelling evidence can there be that America has finally overcome its long and sordid history of racism? Surely, we can now put the past behind us? Did not the new president himself assure us that change has come to America?

Yes, he certainly did. But change does not on its own erase the consequences of history. Nor does it constitute in itself a remedy for transgressions past or neutralize the legacy of  longstanding injustice. As Obama himself acknowledged at Philadelphia last March:

“In the words of William Faulkner, ‘the past is not dead and buried; in fact, it is not even past.’

“Segregated schools were, and are inferior schools, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.

“Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence,  from owning property, or loans not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth or bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persist in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.”

The enduring consequences of that history are captured most recently in the 6th annual “State of the Dream” report from the progressive think-tank United for a Fair Economy. Titled “The Silent Depression” and released this week to coincide with the 80th birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the report calls attention to the disproportionate suffering of blacks and other communities of color amid a deepening national recession.

“Many Americans today are already experiencing a silent economic depression that, in terms of unemployment, equals or exceeds the Great Depression of 1929,” the report warns. Among the alarming indicators of enduring economic disparity:

  • 24 percent of blacks and 21 percent of Latinos live in poverty today, compared to a 10 percent poverty rate   among whites
  • Almost 12 percent of blacks are unemployed; among young black males aged  16-19, the unemployment rate is 32.8 percent, while their white counterparts are at 18.3 percent.
  • Nearly 30 percent of blacks have zero or negative worth, versus 15 percent of whites
  • On average, people of color have 8 cents for every dollar of white wealth.

In any other population, the report says, this rate of unemployment would generate disturbing news headlines about an economic depression. Not so in the black community. Nor has there been talk of any bailout package to remedy this opprobrious state of affairs. The authors note that massive government investment in communities and individuals following the Great Depression directly fostered the growth of the largest middle class in American history. But blacks were, for the most part, excluded from participating in those programs and benefiting from those policies due to the institutional racism of the day.

(The resulting state of endemic economic privation that persists to this day in communities of color has been described elsewhere by sociologist Algernon Austin as black America’s permanent recession).

This year’s “State of the Dream” report offers a timely prescription for change to the incoming Obama administration:

“More work challenging exploitation and fostering middle-class prosperity needs   to be done. In this new millennium, we need to add the elimination of institutional racism to the list. The same asset investment and policy change that supported the development of a largely white post-World War II middle class must be used to eliminate the economic depression currently affecting communities of color.”.

There’s nothing “post-racial” about the challenge ahead if we really want to usher in the kind of change we need.