Race and Class Under Rahm

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor Feb 17, 2012

At the beginning of February, the White House and media pundits were celebrating a drop in the national unemployment rate. Unemployment is now at 8.3 percent, the lowest level in three years. The official Black unemployment also fell sharply, by 2 percentage point, to 13.6 percent.

Despite the media celebrations of these statistics, a sobering report from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee painted a much bleaker picture when it found that in the largest urban areas, Black male employment rates ranged from a high of 66.6 percent in Washington, D.C., to a low of 43 percent in Detroit.

In other words, in big cities, on average, just over half of working-age African American men had jobs–further proof, if more was needed, that the federal government's official unemployment statistics leave out larger numbers of the jobless.

During the current election season, African Americans have only been discussed when Republicans are failing in the polls and engaging in gratuitous racism to score political points with their racist base.

Newt Gingrich offered insight into what he would do about the jobs crisis for African Americans by suggesting that union janitors at public schools be fired and replaced by Black school-aged children, so they could gain work experience. Rick Santorum declared in Iowa–where Blacks are a scant 2.9 percent of the population–that African American lives shouldn't be made better by "giving them other people's money."

The Democrats, despite having a Black president in the White House, don't bother defending African Americans against racist attacks for fear they will be pegged for playing the race card–and so the economic, political and social issues that shape Black life in the U.S. are largely ignored.

Thus, the absurdity of talking about the "positive turn" in the economy while the economic free-fall in Black America continues. Black employment in the former industrial centers of the U.S. remains shockingly low. In Buffalo, among African American men aged 16 to 64, only 43.9 percent had jobs, just above Detroit. In Milwaukee, the figure is 44.7 percent.

In city after city, Black unemployment, even as calculated by official federal statistics, remains at double-digit levels, with joblessness especially drastic among Black youth.

The jobs crisis in Black communities has been driven by the devastation of the manufacturing sector and, now, increasing cuts in public-sector jobs at the federal, state and local level. This is the context within which we have to understand the debate over whether or not to end 120,000 jobs with the U.S. Postal Service. These have been disproportionately Black jobs that paid good wages and kept ordinary African Americans out of poverty over the last 30 years.

The continued threat to whittle down the public sector goes directly to the question of what the quality of Black life in the U.S. will be. Stagnant employment rates and growing poverty are driving the high numbers of foreclosures and evictions in Black communities–aside from good old-fashioned racism. A recent study found that Blacks were twice as likely to be pushed into a more costly form of bankruptcy than whites because of existing biases.

The national picture for Black America is bleak enough, but when investigated on a city-by-city basis, the scale of the crisis seems even more pronounced–especially in President Barack Obama's home of Chicago.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley liked to claim as part of his legacy that Chicago had been turned into a "world class city." The designation was meant to convey the idea that Chicago was a place where the rich and powerful could come to town to wheel and deal.

In fact, the central business area of Chicago, the Loop, has been turned into just that, with multimillion-dollar parks, adorned by posh restaurants, hotels and, of course, the Michigan Avenue shopping district. It is this Chicago that millionaire Mayor Rahm Emanuel hopes to show off at the upcoming NATO-G8 joint summit in the spring.

But there is a very different Chicago that is home to the city's Black population. If the national state of Black America is bleak, the situation in Chicago is downright catastrophic.

Black and Brown Chicago is defined not by its nice hotels and restaurants, but by deep and widespread poverty, stripped-down social services, shuttered public schools, and wanton violence and abuse by a notoriously corrupt police force.

From this maze of neglect and disregard has arisen such an intense hopelessness that Chicago has become the youth murder capital of the United States, with more than 530 young people killed since 2008 alone–nearly 80 percent them living in the 22 neighborhoods that account for the majority of Blacks and Latinos in the city.

Four thousand young Black and brown kids have survived shootings, leaving a generation of trauma survivors who rarely get treated and have limited access to mental health care–a problem exacerbated by the millionaire Mayor's closing of mental health clinics on the South Side of the city, an area where many of these shootings have happened.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg of the social crisis unfolding in Black Chicago:

— Chicago has the third-highest overall poverty rate among major U.S. cities, behind only Philadelphia and Dallas. But for Blacks, Chicago has the highest poverty rate, at 32.2 percent, according to 2009 Census Bureau data. And of course, in some neighborhoods, like East Garfield Park, the level of poverty is even higher than that.

— At the 188 Chicago public schools in predominately Black neighborhoods, 95 percent of students qualify for free lunches. At 14 of these schools, 100 percent of students are eligible.

— There are more white Chicagoans with graduate degrees than there are Black people with two-year associate degrees. Among the country's 10 largest cities, this disparity does not exist anywhere else.

— Fewer than 40 percent of school-age Black males in Chicago graduated from high school between 1995 and 2005.

— According to a study of arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession in 2009 and 2010, nearly eight out of every 10 arrests involved Black youth, even though Black youngsters are less likely than white or Latino youth to use marijuana. African Americans accounted for nearly nine out of 10 of those who pleaded or were found guilty of such charges.

— One in five Black men in his 20s in Cook County is under the supervision of the criminal justice system–in prison or jail, and on parole. For every two African Americans enrolled in a university or college in the state of Illinois, there are five Blacks in prison.

— As a result of the hyper-policing that takes place in Black neighborhoods, in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side, 70 percent of Black men between the ages of 18 and 45 are ex-offenders. In 2010, Chicago police arrested 20,930 Black youth 17 and younger–while only arresting 936 white youth in the same age group.

— In the first eight months of 2011, Chicago police shot 45 people, killing 16 of them–and 87 percent of the victims were were African American.

This legacy of racism, segregation and police violence–and the abundant evidence that all these conditions persist–draw attention to the divisions that exist within Black Chicago.

Despite having a relatively high number of African American political representatives at both the local and national level, Black Chicago remains gripped by crisis. In fact, many Black aldermen in the City Council have sat passively as Emanuel has passed draconian budgets that will have the worst impact on the South and West Sides of the city.

Moreover, Black politicians have been silent as Mayor 1% has viciously attacked public-sector unions–the only thing standing between them and poverty for tens of thousands of Black Chicagoans. Union jobs mean higher incomes for African American workers–it's that simple. But the high-salaried Black officials in Chicago who vote for layoffs and salary reductions for Black workers are evidence of a growing class divide.

In Chicago, as in most big cities, there are a small but significant number of African Americans who look to maximize political and economic opportunities by either currying favor with the political machine or helping to push through that agenda. In Chicago, one consequence is that a handful of Black preachers from around the city are willing to take money from the developing Emanuel machine to attend public hearings and declare their support for school closures.

Despite this pathetic attempt to make it appear as if the demand to close schools in Black neighborhoods is coming from the Black community itself, African American parents and activists have thrown a wrench in the works by appearing at school closure hearings and demanding that their voices be heard instead.

The fight for public education in Chicago–and the potential showdown between the Chicago Teachers Union and Rahm Emanuel and his merry band of aldermen in the Chicago City Council–could energize a wider struggle against segregation and racism in Black Chicago. The need for renewed struggle and activism against some of the worst conditions of poverty in the country has never been clearer.

This article was originally published by Socialist Worker.

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