Blacks Feel Brunt Of Recession
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
As we've said, it's been a year since the meltdown of financial institutions officially began, helping to send the economy into a tailspin. Some analysts believe the hard times are fueling class resentment, which sometimes seems to translate into white, populist rage, but two essayists writing recently for the New York Times op-ed pages said there is a racial divide to this recession.
But African-Americans are being hit much harder by the recession than other groups. They are almost twice as likely to be unemployed and to face foreclosure and to fall several steps down the ladder of economic status. They are much more likely than whites to be living at or below the poverty line.
Joining us now to talk about all this is one of the authors of that op-ed. He's Dedrick Muhammad, senior organizer and research associate at the Institute for Policy Studies, it's a liberal think-tank. Dedrick, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. DEDRICK MUHAMMAD (Senior Organizer and Research Associate, Institute for Policy Studies): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Dedrick, in your article, you describe the recession, and the article is titled "The Recession's Racial Divide," you said that the recession is more like a depression for African-Americans. Why?
Mr. MUHAMMAD: Well, we highlight that during the recovery - during the last recovery, between the years of 2000, 2007, African-Americans were already experiencing a recession. The employment decreased by 2.4 percent. Incomes similarly declined, and so during the recovery, African-Americans were experiencing a recession, and then when this great recession started, I think the kind of depth of this great recession has really been an impact of a depression in the African-American community.
MARTIN: The piece begins with this, these words: What do you get when you combine the worst economic downturn since the Depression with the first black president? A surge of white racial resentment loosely disguised as a populist revolt. How does it - given the numbers, you're saying that the suffering - I mean, obviously a lot of people are suffering. That has to be said. But how does African-American economic suffering transform into white racial resentment? How does that work?
Mr. MUHAMMAD: Well, I think - I mean, and what the article also highlights is that it's not just African-Americans who have been suffering either due to this great recession or really - or even feeling the squeeze that the middle class has been feeling for the last 20 to 30 years.
I mean, plenty of white, working-class Americans, you know, who were in the manufacturing sector have been losing their jobs, have been facing decreasing income, but I think that with the first black president and with this idea of change, that this has really rattled some people. And as they look at this change, and as places like FOX News are putting forward that President Obama is a racist and that health care is going to be some type of reparations, it's kind of using key words to help stoke, really, the insecurity and fear that the white working class, many white middle-class people have been feeling for years and put it in a negative, racial-resentment type of direction.
MARTIN: I just want to clarify, though, that the person who said that at FOX News was Glenn Beck. And I don't know that it's entire news organization needs to be held accountable for this particular commentator. I don't know. People have different opinions about that, but I do want to sort of clarify that this particular commentator, Glenn Beck, who describes himself variously as an entertainer, I don't know that he considers himself a news man. He also does stand-up comedy, has advanced this point of view. And I just feel in the interest of fairness that that's fair to say.
You mentioned on your Web site that there's a FOX News Web site, there was one article suggesting that health reform is a stealth version of reparations for slavery. Well, what then does this mean? You're saying that there are a group of people for whom any economic advancement by African-Americans will be perceived as to their detriment?
Mr. MUHAMMAD: Well, and I think what it is, any perceived African-American advancement, which is somehow been twisted to be at the expense of the white middle class, white working class. But what the article's trying to highlight is we aren't seeing the African-American economic advancement that people might be feeling resentment about and that really we have a national crisis as a whole with the squeeze that has been placed on the middle class. And that as African-Americans really had the first opportunity to become part of the middle class in this post-civil rights era has also been one of the weaker times in the 20th century for the middle class to grow.
And I think, you know, if we look at this problem more holistically, we can see that we have a problem in America about the middle class and working class and strengthening them and that communities that have historically disenfranchised are even facing greater barriers, and what are we going to do as a country to deal with these issues.
MARTIN: What would you want people to draw from your article? I mean, one of the things - you don't say this explicitly - but one of the things you seem to be suggesting is that President Obama, as an African-American, can't talk about race because all it does is stoke more resentment, even if it's true.
Mr. MUHAMMAD: Yeah, no, I think President Obama actually - I've been critical of President Obama for not taking a more aggressive approach in dealing with the issues that face African-Americans particularly, just as I expect President Obama to help, you know, the manufacturing sector of particular regions of the country that are disproportionately suffering during this recession. I would think that he should also be able to focus on the African-American community that is disproportionately suffering during this recession and…
MARTIN: But how can he? I mean, your article would suggest that he cannot because the more he does, the more it feeds into the perception that African-Americans are the only ones who are going to benefit, even though also the other people who are suffering might benefit also or presumably would benefit also.
Mr. MUHAMMAD: Well, I think politically, he feels like he cannot. And so, I'm looking for at least some other political leaders, let's step forward as a society and say, you know, these are important issues. And we can't leave everything to President Obama to deal with, to take the lead on. But I believe if others take a stronger role in helping highlight the racial divide, the growing economic divide in this country, the growing economic inequality as a whole, that then there will be more political space to deal with these issues. But I think so often people say, well, we have the first black president and expect him to take the lead on all of these things, and we're seeing politically there is not that space to do it.
MARTIN: And finally, we only have 30 seconds left, and I apologize for leaving a question like this to the end, but this seems to have been a rather painful piece for you to write.
Mr. MUHAMMAD: No, it was - I mean, talking, there were so many people who were affected by this recession, and what I found most interesting is the shame that so many people felt and didn't feel that they could really talk about these issues publicly because they felt it was their failure. But what I'm trying to highlight is that it's society as a whole's failure and something that we really need to deal with as a country.
MARTIN: Dedrick Muhammad is senior organizer and research associate at the Institute for Policy Studies. He joined us by phone from Phoenix, Arizona. The piece we're talking about is titled "The Recession's Racial Divide." He wrote it with Barbara Ehrenreich, the writer who we've also had as a guest on this program. We'll have a link to it on our Web site, which you can find at npr.org. Dedrick, thank you for joining us.
Mr. MUHAMMAD: Thanks again for having me.
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MARTIN: Coming up, the moms. We'll talk about how to talk to your kids about tough topics like the Holocaust and slavery.
JOLENE MS. IVEY: I think that it really helps if you are able to find examples in your own family and say, yeah, this is where we came from, but look where we're going, and look how that person, who was a slave, was able to survive and pass things on to us.
MARTIN: That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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