On Tuesday, Barack Obama admitted that the situation faced by the impoverished residents of American urban centers like Baltimore is a hopeless one.
Oh, he didn’t say that outright. The president waxed noble about police excesses, the aspirations of those born into poverty, and the need to create opportunities for millions of primarily minority city dwellers. But he admitted that he has nothing even resembling a plan to lift America’s minorities out of poverty when he resorted to lamenting the lack of infrastructure spending out of a recalcitrant Republican-led Congress.
In response to a question about the violence in Baltimore posed during a joint White House press conference alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama delivered a perfectly anodyne and unremarkable 15 minute lecture about the lamentable state of affairs in America’s cities. There wasn’t much to object to in his response; it was a platitude-laden sermon about the school-to-prison pipeline, criminal justice reform, and excessive drug sentencing. Many leading Republicans would agree with the president’s assessment of the social ills that plague urban centers. Don’t believe me? Check The New York Times.
But the president conceded that he has no real plan to address the chronic hopelessness that bedevils cities like Baltimore when he claimed that what this moment truly called for is more infrastructure spending. And he would get it, too, if it weren’t for those darn Republicans.
If we are serious about solving this problem, then we’re going to not only have to help the police, we’re going to have to think about what can we do, the rest of us, to make sure that we’re providing early education to these kids. To make sure that we’re reforming our criminal justice system so it’s not just a pipeline from schools to prisons. So that we’re not rendering men in these communities unemployable because of a felony record for a nonviolent drug offense. That we’re making investments so they can get the training they need to find jobs.
That’s hard. That requires more than just the occasional news report or task force, and there’s a bunch of my agenda that would make a difference right now in that. I’m under no illusion that under this Congress we’re going to get massive investments in urban communities. And so we’ll try to find areas where we can make a difference around school reform, and around job training, and around some investments in infrastructure in these communities trying to attract new businesses in.
That might have made the president’s dispirited liberal base voters, many of whom reside in these hopeless urban environments, feel better, but this is about as naked an admission of powerlessness as you could get. And the president is correct to concede his impotence. The federal government has squandered much of its credibility among urban minorities.
“Inevitability, there are now calls for President Obama to intervene and calm nerves in Baltimore,” The Atlantic’s David Graham observed on Tuesday. “But what would it mean for the federal government to get involved? Does it mean Obama coming to town and delivering a speech, as he has after so many national tragedies? Such a step might offer a quick salve, but it wouldn’t do much to address the underlying causes of anger.”
In fact, the federal government hardly has much credibility here either. Segregation and poverty in West Baltimore are rooted squarely in federal policy. Redlining of Baltimore neighborhoods, conducted under the auspices of the Federal Housing Authority, helped to ensure that black residents were segregated into black neighborhoods and built less equity. In 1995, a federal judge found that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had violated the Fair Housing Act, placing public housing only in poor black neighborhoods and thus concentrating and perpetuating a cycle of poverty. The government also failed to prevent Wells Fargo from a new form of redlining leading up to the housing bubble, in which black residents of the city were targeted for discriminatory lending.
The ratio of black unemployment to white unemployment that was narrowing to near parity before the 2007-2008 recession is again a measure of dispiriting inequality. African-American unemployment rates remain persistently higher than those of whites.
“Even among people with similar levels of education, the black unemployment rate is higher,” The Times reported last year. “Indeed, joblessness is higher among blacks in every education level tracked by the labor department.”
That report noted that minority poverty rates have declined by over 5 percentage points since 1980, but the current 27.2 percent of African-Americans living below the poverty line is “astronomical.” It is far more than double the 12.7 percent of whites living in a similar condition.
These problems predate Obama’s presidency, and they will persist long after he leaves office. The persistence of these issues also puts the lie to the notion circa 2008 that the president’s administration would put an end to systemic inequality along with halting the rise of the tides. Obama acknowledges his own powerlessness with yet another plaintive appeal to the value of roads and bridges. Not to mention the dastardliness of those Emmanuel Goldsteins in the GOP.