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For African-Americans in the Rust Belt, Racism Should Be Measured in Dollars

“What’s the fundamental challenge of our day? It is to end economic violence. Plant closings without notice — economic violence. Even the greedy do not profit long from greed — economic violence,” Jesse Jackson said at the 1988 National Democratic convention.

In 1988, the primacy of economic violence was a proud position for a black activist. Today, it is dismissed, even treated as a betrayal of blackness.

This is unfortunate since economic violence on black Americans is both persistent and severe.

After Senator Sanders poorly worded “ghetto comment,” black pundits flooded the media vaunting their middle and even upper-class status.

Most African-Americans are not poor, said Joy Ann Reid, the poverty rate is 28%. Yet, this number masks widespread and serious deprivation and as the democratic primary moves into the Rust Belt, where blacks have been profoundly impacted by deindustrialization, it is critical that we acknowledge just how poor many black people actually are.

Early this month, the impressive drop in national unemployment to 4.9% was touted in the press and on social media as evidence of Obama’s success. Impressive indeed given what the president inherited; however, labor force participation is down; wages continue to stagnate; and for black Americans, the unemployment rate is what it was for all Americans in 2009—8.8%. White American’s recession is black America’s good times.

For the three Rust Belt states voting on March 15, the economic recovery has been less than robust and for black Americans, it’s a depression.


The unemployment rate in Ohio, measured at 5.7% at the end of 2015, lags behind the national rate.  Likewise, the unemployment rate for blacks in Ohio lags behind the national black unemployment rate by almost 3 points at 11.6%.

Missouri’s economic data mirrors that of Ohio with a 5.7% unemployment rate and an 11.8% black unemployment rate.

Illinois trails both states with a 6.1% unemployment rate at the end of 2015, but for Blacks in Illinois, that rate was 14.4%.

Keep in mind that unemployment is measured by those actively looking for work, not those who are discouraged or uninterested. These numbers are a great indication of how little black lives matter in America. Well before the nation hit double digit unemployment, economists declared that the United States was in a recession. Now, that blacks seeking employment are more likely to be unemployed than whites were in 2009, commentators, including black ones, all agree, we are living in boom times.

Yet, in some cities, to call it a black economic depression is not hyperbolic. The black unemployment rate in St. Louis is 17.8%.  In 2014, 25% of African-American residents in Chicago were jobless.  Among blacks between the ages of 20 to 24 years old, the jobless rate is at a shocking 59.2%.

As one drives throughout Eastern Ohio, the sight of abandoned mills and plants of a once thriving industrial center overwhelms the senses. The consequences of deindustrialization are not only evident in the sight of abandoned buildings but in the façade of struggling people facing a 15.8% poverty rate. In 2014, the state of Ohio recorded black poverty at 34.7%. These disturbingly high unemployment numbers are correlated with rates of poverty in these three states, particularly child poverty.

Destitution among the very young is particularly troubling. Ohio’s child poverty rate ranks 36th in the nation with 11.1% of children categorized as extremely poor (extreme poverty is defined as an annual household income of less than $12,209 for a family of four). Usually, poverty is defined as $24,418.00 for a family of four and 22.9% of children in Ohio live in families poor enough to meet that standard.

Child poverty in Ohio is almost synonymous with racial minority. While an unacceptably high 16.5% of white children in Ohio live in poverty, it pales (no pun intended) in comparison to the rates for children of color, 48.4% of black children live in poverty; 35.4% of Hispanic children live in poverty; and 52.3% of children from the most forgotten group in America – Indigenous Americans—live in poverty.

Similar numbers are found in other Rust Belt states. 30.6% of blacks living in Illinois are poor; 33.6% of black Chicagoans are poor; 43.2% of black children in Illinois are poor. The number of blacks in Illinois without health insurance in Illinois is twice that of their white counterparts (14% vs 7%).

In Missouri, 31.6% of blacks are poor; 43% of black children in Missouri live in families that are poor.

One may rightly respond that these numbers simply offer evidence of the persistence of racism and that economic interventions alone would not decrease black unemployment and poverty. There is some validity to this argument. Poverty is not racism but one of the consequences of racism is poverty. Racism hinders black upward mobility.

However, none of this negates the fact that black deprivation relative to whites’ is sensitive to certain policies.

Unemployment for blacks was the highest in the last 40 years in 1983 at a rate of 19.5 % soon after President Reagan began to implement his economic agenda.

Black unemployment was at its lowest in 2000 at 7.6% at the end of the Clinton era; thus, it is not without reason that African-Americans of a certain age have fond memories of the Clinton era. Black unemployment from 1992 to 2000 was nearly halved.

Yet, today we now understand that a great number of the poor were being made invisible through mass incarceration. When President Clinton began his tenure in 1992, there were 847,000 people in prison. By the end of his eight years, that number had grown to 1,334,000.

While Clinton deserves some credit—despite Republican creed, taxes improve the economy—he was in many respects the beneficiary of forces that had little to do with him, especially developments in the technology sector, which spurred tremendous growth. Neither Al Gore nor Bill Clinton invented the internet but it made them look good.

On the other hand, the negative impact of President Clinton’s policies, the 1999 repeal of Glass–Steagall’s and the implementation of NAFTA in 1994 would not be felt for years after his presidency.

For the Rust Belt states of Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio, NAFTA is especially relevant. According to the Economic policy institute, the United States led to 700,000 jobs being shipped to Mexico alone. “The vast majority of workers who lost jobs from NAFTA suffered a permanent loss of income,” Jeff Faux, the institute’s founder said.

Ohio suffered the greatest lost with 307,560 between 1994 and 2015 that are attributable to NAFTA. The Economic Policy Institute also found that 106,400 jobs had been lost or displaced in Ohio as a result of trade deficits with China since its entrance into the World Trade Organization in 2001.

NAFTA is estimated to have cost Illinois 290,822 manufacturing jobs between 1994 and 2015, and job loss to China is estimated at 132,500.

Missouri’s loss is estimated at 105,798 manufacturing jobs, and although this is a smaller number of jobs, it was a whopping 29.1% of the industry. The 44,200 jobs lost in Missouri can be attributed to the United States opening its door to cheap goods from China.

It took a few years for plants to shut down and for managers to offer lower pay to new workers in the industry. It is understandable that Clinton’s predecessor was blamed. Bush was in power; Clinton had left him a booming economy.

George W. Bush reinstituted the voodoo economic policy of cutting taxes for the wealthy to stimulate growth on the bottom. The obvious reality that enriching those on the bottom increases consumer demand and thus stimulates growth conveniently escapes the thoughts of many decision makers. Thus, President Bush was rightly blamed. Yet, he was not solely responsible.

The economic policies that ultimately brought about massive job loss in the Rust Belt, as well as the housing bubble that led to 2009 were initiated in the 90’s by President Clinton. Those policies further exacerbated black poverty.

Free trade deals and Wall Street are very much black issues.

A ridiculous dichotomy has been drawn in this election between what constitute black issues and what constitutes white issues and many black commentators have been eager to point out that Senators Sanders is reluctant to “say black.”

This is a false and frankly, a foolish dichotomy. It ignores the most basic fact that racism has always been first and foremost a system of economic extraction and distribution. Slavery extracted and redistributed wealth; tenant farming facilitated the extraction of wealth; Jim Crow prevented black accumulation of wealth; mass incarceration allows corporations to extract wealth; and in a globalized economy, the most expendable workers are those who have been made economically powerless through centuries of economic extraction.

As a result of this racialized distribution, white Americans have 15 times more wealth than their black counterparts.

Yes, black people are poor. Perhaps, we have gotten used to it. Perhaps, we are ashamed of it. It is nonetheless true and it is the preeminent form of violence that we experience.

Anyone who believes that the humiliation of a solidly middle-class black person who is followed in a clothing store is as critical a public policy issue as the great number of blacks who could only access the goods in that store by resorting to theft is misguided.

Carolyn Hyppolite is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

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