In the last years of his life Dr. Martin Luther King expanded his focus from political and civil rights to include economic justice. Noting that the majority of America’s poor were white King decried the already huge gaps between rich and poor, calling for “radical changes in the structure of our society,” including a massive urban jobs program.
If King were alive today, he would have plenty of reason to take pride in the success of his struggle for human rights. Yet he would surely be disheartened at the economic situation among African-Americans and other racial minorities. African-American unemployment, for example, is at its worst level in more than three decades. While African-Americans make up 12% of the nation’s population, they account for 21% of the nation’s unemployed. Unemployment for black men stands at a staggeringly high 19.1%, and the Economic Policy Institute estimates that overall black unemployment will remain well above 10% till at least 2014.
The black middle class is also under siege. The gap in net worth of minority households compared with whites is greater today than in 2005. White households may have lost 16% of their net worth in recent years, but African-Americans have lost 53%, and Latinos 66%. The recent decline in public sector jobs across the country could deepen these negative trends; blacks are 30% more likely to be government employees.
Some of these problems stem from the larger economic crisis. The collapse of the real estate bubble, for example, has disproportionally affected minority groups, particularly Hispanics. Yet many of them are tied to shifts in government policy. The Obama administration could help ameliorate some of the pain minorities are feeling in the jobs sector, but its focus on white-collar information jobs, academia and the green economy has done little to help this already underserved community.
But will these failures have political consequences in 2012? It’s hard to say.
Despite the poor economic news, approval of the current administration — headed by an African-American President, Barack Obama - stands at 84% among African-Americans even as it has weakened among whites.
The situation among Latinos, the nation’s largest ethnic minority, is somewhat more complex. Throughout the ’90s and the first seven years of the new millennium, Latinos enjoyed steady advances in everything from business formation to home ownership. But the real estate collapse disproportionately devastated Latinos, whose net worth tended be tied to their houses as opposed to stocks and bonds. Latinos also were over-represented in the hard-hit construction and manufacturing sectors.
Conceivably, hard times could help the GOP a bit with Latinos. In 2004 George W. Bush — a Texan with a seemingly simpatico attitude — captured more than 40% of their votes. But in 2008, Latinos strongly lined up behind Obama, who won roughly two-thirds of their vote. In 2010, Latinos shifted somewhat to the right, remaining strongly Democratic at 60% but significantly down from 69% in 2006. Recent polls have shown presidential approval levels barely above 50% among Latino voters.
Perhaps a bigger problem, particularly with Latinos, will be getting them to vote in anything like the numbers seen in 2008. The Obama administration might recapture their support by pointing out that their economic calamities originated during the Bush administration. It can also make the point that in the short run ameliorative steps taken by the president and Congressional Democrats — such as extending unemployment benefits — have aided minorities disproportionately.
But the biggest question is whether the current progressive agenda supports minority upward mobility. From its inception the Obama administration’s focus has been on the largely white information economy, notably boosting universities and the green-industrial complex based in places like Silicon Valley. The Obama team’s decision to surrender working class whites to appeal to what Democratic strategists call the “mass upper middle class” makes political sense but could lead to problems for an American working class that is itself increasingly minority.
An emphasis on green industries and strong across-the-board regulation often works against traditional industries like heavy manufacturing, warehousing and fossil fuel development that historically have employed many minorities. Opposing development of new petrochemical plants and such things as the XL Pipeline — opposed by many greens and their allies in the Obama Administration — could reduce new opportunities for minority workers, many of them unionized, particularly in the heavily African-American, and increasingly Latino, Gulf region.
Modern-day progressivism’s primary laboratory, California, tells a cautionary tale. The draconian green legislation enacted under former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has hit the state’s manufacturing and construction industries far more than the national average. Even more troubling: a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California found that this region’s affluent, largely white population has expanded far more quickly than the national average.
More important is the dissatisfaction among some Latino and African American Democrats that the current progressive regime. Writing recently in the Los Angeles Business Journal, Roderick Wright, a Democratic state senator from south Los Angeles argues draconian environmental laws have seriously undermined job creation in his heavily minority, working-class districts.
Congressman Dennis Cardoza, a Portuguese-American who represents a heavily Latino district in the San Joaquin Valley, also recently lambasted President Obama for neglecting the concerns of “real people.” Cardoza claimed that the president has been particularly deaf in addressing “the environmental, resources, housing and employment areas.” This frustration is understandable given that Cardoza’s Central Valley district suffers from among the nation’s highest unemployment rates.
Sadly the GOP has done little to address these failings. Republican pandering to nativist constituencies will contain Latino willingness to hear the party’s message. Old links to racist groups (in the case of Ron Paul) or possession of a tin ear (Newt Gingrich) does neither the GOP nor the more important cause of political competition a great service.
A hard focus on economic growth and opportunity by minorities might not win accolades from the mainstream press, academia or top party cadres. Yet if we wish to see Dr. King’s real dream extended beyond a relatively small number of the gifted few, minority voters should start challenging Obama’s and the other candidates’ economic agenda — or they can expect their support and their futures to again be taken for granted.
This piece originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.