The state of the black union today

Marketplace Staff Mar 1, 2010

The state of the black union today

Marketplace Staff Mar 1, 2010


Tess Vigeland: For the first time in 10 years, there was no State of the Black Union meeting last month. Led by talk show host Tavis Smiley, leaders from the African American community used to meet on the last weekend in February to discuss everything from the economy to politics, arts, culture and beyond. But not this year, despite the recession’s impact on that community.

My colleague Kai Ryssdal caught up recently with Dr. Julianne Malveaux. She’s an economist and president of Bennett College for Women. And he asked her to outline some of the challenges for African Americans in this new decade.

Kai Ryssdal: Dr. Malveaux, good to have you with us.

Julianne Malveaux: Good to be here, thank you.

Ryssdal: What in your opinion, then, since Mr. Smiley has opted not to talk about it this year, what is your understanding of the state of the black union in this country?

Malveaux: Well, the state of the black union is I think on the brink and over the edge in terms of any number of socio-economic indicators. I would start, of course, with the economy. We look at the unemployment rate. It’s reported at 9.7 percent, that 9.7 for everyone is really 16.5 for everyone because of the discouraged workers and those marginally attached. But if you do the same kind of calculation with the African American community, you come up with an unemployment rate that’s about 28 percent. That’s something that we need to talk a lot more about, but not only talk more about but do more things about. President Obama, I think, is on the right direction with this, asking for $266 billion for job creation, but the Senate is coming up with much less than the president initially put into his budget.

Ryssdal: Well, about the president, for a moment. He has been criticized by many different groups since he has taken office who all thought that he was going to work more solidly for them. Is he doing all that he could in your opinion for the African American community?

Malveaux: You know, the president is suffering from what I call the curse of high expectations. Everyone wants him to do something, and he certainly has come in raising people’s hopes with that wonderful rhetoric of “yes, we can.” And then I would say this: If there were any other population in the United States that had an unemployment rate of 28 percent, I believe they’d get special attention. If this was a group of Appalachians, let’s say, OK, we gotta do something, this unemployment rate is so much higher than everyone else’s. If it was women, oh no, this is too high of a rate for women. African American people want to be treated the same way others are treated, which means when our problems are special they deserve special attention.

Ryssdal: Lay out some of those challenges. Be specific for me. Where are the challenges economically for African Americans today besides unemployment?

Malveaux: Other than the job market, there’s the housing market. The whole foreclosure issue has hit us harder for any number of reasons. We were primarily renters and so we were often renting from people whose homes had been foreclosed. So the renter has pretty clean hands. She’s paid her rent every month. But now her landlord is foreclosed upon, and she has to go. Education, the whole issue of access and affordability in a recession is extremely acute. President Obama raised the Pell Grant by $650, we were very grateful for that. But when tuition, room and board at a college like mine is $22,300, and the Pell Grant is $5,350 the question is how do you deal with that. That’s the kind of thing that hits the African American community hardest.

Ryssdal: Well lay it out for me, then. Why has the African American community been so hard hit in this country?

Malveaux: First of all the African American community experiences a historical discrimination that shows up with the wealth gap. Wealth gap means you have less to rely on when you have hard times. So African American people, 13 percent of the population, have just 2 percent of our nation’s wealth. Secondly, African American households have lower incomes overall than majority households, about $32,000 compared to roughly $50,000 for whites, and those are round numbers. And you have a high level of female headship, families that are headed by women, not all those families are families in poverty, but when you have one parent in a household, again, you have less essentially to fall back on.

Ryssdal: If we called you in, say, 10 years, and wanted to have a conversation about the state of the black union then, would it be materially different then it is today?

Malveaux: I certainly hope it will be materially different. But it will really call for work. If no one does anything different, it will be the same in 10 years.

Ryssdal: Dr. Julianne Malveaux, she’s the president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. Dr. Malveaux, thanks so much for your time.

Malveaux: Great, thank you.

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