In This Recession Pain Has A Color

The day that Barack Obama became President, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Plaza outside the state office building on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue was alive with expectant joy. The crowd packed the cold concrete space between the dark bronze statue of Powell, striding perpetually forward on the corner, and the multicolor mural honoring black women at the plaza’s east end. Black men in crisp suits watched the jumbo TV screen with grave pride, the mumbling of the news anchors inaudible and unnecessary; it was all about the visual. Black women lifted their chins and wiped tears away. Hawkers peddled T-shirts and buttons both tasteful and tacky: The best was Obama as Muhammad Ali standing triumphant over John McCain as a flat-on-the-canvas Sonny Liston.

Like A Canyon

Just north of 125th Street, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture displays a timeline of black political activism. The familiar faces— Garvey, DuBois, King, Malcolm X, Jackson— are all there. So is a picture of a group of black protesters, men and women, in long coats, fedoras and pillbox hats picketing against discriminatory hiring practices by defense contractors … in 1943. One man is holding a sign that reads, “The Negro People Must Have Jobs.”The popular history of the black civil rights movement usually focuses on its quest for legal rights like the ability to attend previously all-white schools, sit at the front of the bus or eat at Jim Crow lunch counters. But bread-and-butter issues were always at the movement’s core, because black-white disparities in the job market have been present almost since what Hilary Shelton, director for the NAACP’s Washington bureau, calls “that very peculiar employment program, the African slave trade.”It wasn’t until the middle part of last century, however, that those disparities began showing up in the unemployment rate.

The Search for the Smoking Gun

During four decades of debate over the causes of black-male joblessness and unemployment, there have been two broad schools of thought. There were those who blamed the problem on the way the economy works, especially its racial contours and barriers, and those who attributed it to the way black men behave, to their culture.According to New York University political science professor Lawrence Mead, black joblessness is about a failure of low-skill black men to choose to work or live up to their employers’ standards when they do get jobs. “The immediate problem is work discipline, a willingness to cooperate, to be a reliable employee,” says Mead. “It’s collective psychology. It’s attitudes, and this is characteristic of poverty, where people want to work in principle.

Bigger Slice, Shrinking Pie

With 15 percent of all black employees represented by unions nationwide, blacks are more likely to be organized than are white, Asian or Latino workers. And black men are more often unionized than black women. However, the number of black workers represented by unions has fallen 24 percent over the past decade, more than for any other group. Black workers have a growing share of the shrinking pool of union jobs in America. This is the latest chapter in a complicated history.

Where It Hurts

In the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens on a slate gray Friday in February, the food pantry at St. Gertrude the Great was devoid of clients. The woman working there, who wanted to be identified only as Marbe, explained why.”There’s nobody today because it’s the beginning of the month,” she said. People had just received their unemployment checks and food stamp benefits. “By the middle of the month, there’ll be more.”Marbe began working at the pantry in 2000 and says she saw demand spike in 2001, only to subside as more pantries opened up in the area.

Now What?

In the lobby of STRIVE, an employment-training program in East Harlem, the messages are clear, stated in a bold, black font on posters that greet the overwhelmingly black and Latino clients as they get off the elevator and enter the lobby: “Please Remove Your Hats.” “Please Do Not Wear Pants Below the Waist.” “Please Do Not Wear Headphones.”Inside the classroom, says STRIVE’s chief operating officer, Angelo Rivera, attitudes are a primary target. “You have to inflict some kind of discomfort and pain so they can own up to what their issues are,” he says. “That whole attitudinal piece will make you or break you in the world of work.”But in a month of instruction, STRIVE students also get two days on civics.