This month I watched as folks in Washington D.C. celebrated the dip in our national unemployment rate to 10%. At the same time it was reported that the unemployment rate for African Americans in our country was twice that of the national average. Reading both statistics made me cringe, knowing that the unemployment rate in my neighborhood in Minneapolis was twice that 10% number BEFORE the economic downturn and foreclosure crisis. And the real unemployment rate for African Americans today (and my neighbors back then) is probably much higher since reported unemployment percentages only reflect those that are still looking for work -- not those who have all but given up and dropped out of the job market completely.
At a time when everyone in America is hurting, communities of color are hurting even more.
At a White House press conference last spring, President Obama fielded a question about rising Black unemployment by saying, "A rising tide lifts all boats," meaning as he addresses unemployment overall, Black unemployment will also be addressed.
Does a rising tide really lift all boats? I don't think so.
America has a history of putting into place universal programs with the expectation that everyone will benefit. As the experience of the New Deal initiatives during the Great Depression illustrate, even universal policies, if not well designed, can exacerbate rather than ameliorate racial conditions.
There is a great opportunity for us today as a country to heal not only the wounds of this most recent economic crisis, but also to heal the wounds of decades of racial disparities and injustice.
If we look at some of the most popular universal programs coming out of the New Deal and World War II, it is plain to see that these programs by and large benefited whites disproportionately. While the programs may have still benefited non-whites, they often exacerbated the disparities between whites and non-whites. Today, the opportunity exists to build healthy communities where everyone benefits, especially low-income communities of color. But to do so will take a more targeted approach than we have adopted in the past.
In the same way that the post-New Deal and post-WWII policies laid the groundwork for future generations, today we are presented with the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a better future for our next generations.
In order to do this effectively we must take the time to understand how many low-income communities of color are situated differently than other American communities. Then we must put in place more targeted approaches that pay particular attention to the unique situation of these often excluded communities.
This is not just about equality. This is about equity.
The pursuit of equity today is different from the pursuit of equality. While civil rights legislation established equality in principle many practical barriers remain to achieving economic and social parity. You can't just have the right to sit in a bus. Today, you need a bus that is frequent, connects you to employment, and provides a platform for economic, social, and physical mobility. -- Angela Glover Blackwell, Policy Link CEO
In this moment, we can work toward building a more equitable future, or find ourselves repeating the mistakes of our past. And to succeed in this will take more than just good policies and programs; it will require a collective willingness, determination, and commitment for the type of change that benefits all in our society, not just some.
Neeraj Mehta has been working with others to uncover beauty and strength in North Minneapolis for the past 10 years. Previously he worked for Project for Pride in Living and most recently as program and strategic development director for the Sanctuary Community Development Corporation. Currently, he is working with the community-building intermediary Nexus Community Partners, partnering with others to create more engaged and powerful communities in the Twin Cities.