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. The crowd jeered Dick Cheney. They cheered Jimmy and Rosalynn, Bill and Hillary, Sasha and Malia. When the moment came, when their man’s hand was raised, the roar was exultant. At last. At last. At last.
One year to the moment later—noon on Jan. 20, 2010—a video store on the north side of 125th happened to be playing Eyes on the Prize on a TV set mounted outside its door, and the episode had people singing “We Shall Overcome.” Across the street from the plaza, a men’s store was holding a going-out-of-business sale. The shoe store next door was giving 70 percent off. A nearby sidewalk stand offered inspirational plaques like one that told the reader, “Relax. God’s in charge.” Jackhammers were tearing at the concrete around Powell’s statue.
The rest of the plaza was populated by black men with nothing to do.
They are men like Christopher Flowers. A 44-year-old high school dropout who grew up in Jamaica, Queens, Flowers has worked as a supermarket shelf stocker, in a warehouse and as a furniture mover. He left each job hoping to make more money at the next. But he doesn’t remember exactly when he was last employed. “My last job was in security, a couple of years ago. The store closed,” he says, speaking slowly. “It burnt down.” He had been working off the books, so he didn’t collect unemployment. He’s eating a bagel, and crumbs are flying out as he speaks. His nose drips. When you are out in it all day, 40 degrees gets uncomfortable. Your nose gets cold. Your lips numb a little.
A manic young man with a red folder comes by shouting, “Security jobs available! Security jobs available! Security jobs available!” and taking names and numbers from those who want a gig. Flowers signs up. He’s done so once before, and never heard back, but this time he has a phone number to provide in hopes of getting a call. “I need something to do. That’s why I signed up with him,” Flowers says. “I don’t know what to do.”
He has a daughter. He lives in a homeless shelter. “I know everybody has a chance to do something with their life. I guess that’s just the way it is. You’ve got a black man in the presidency. That’s just the way it is. Black people work too. Shit is just harder. What can I tell you?”
In the worst economic downturn since World War II, pain is widespread. Unemployment rose in all 50 states last year, and the 10 percent national unemployment rate in December was the worst since mid-1983. Even the improved 9.7 rate in January and February was far from full employment. At 16 million strong, the ranks of the unemployed are larger than at any time in modern American history. Legendary banks and investment houses have collapsed. Cities, states and the federal government are facing gargantuan deficits. The white woman on the C train the other day, she says she’s nearly got her doctorate but she can’t get Walmart to hire her. Things are tough all over. In some places, they are harder. At the end of 2009 unemployment in Michigan was 14.9 percent, more than three times the level in North Dakota. New York City had 10.4 percent unemployment, but the Bronx—at 13.9 percent—had the highest unemployment in the state. Amid that uneven map of hurt, some people are suffering disproportionately.
Namely black people.
Nationwide, black women posted a 13.1 percent unemployment rate, to white women’s 7.8 percent in February. That’s a striking ratio. But for men, it was worse. The black-male unemployment rate was 19 percent that month, compared with 9.6 percent for white men. Over the past year, the black-male labor force participation rate has dropped to 64 percent, an all-time low. According to federal statistics, blacks are about 11 percent of the labor force but a quarter of the pool of works deemed “marginally attached to the labor force.”
In New York City, the disparities are stark. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), a progressive New York think tank, in the third quarter of 2009 the city’s white-male unemployment rate was 7.6 percent. For black men, it was 19.9 percent. For Latinos, it was 11.9 percent.
Estimates at unemployment rates in individual neighborhooods are not statistically robust, but they give a sense of the geography of the crisis. Only 7 percent of black men in Woodhaven, Queens, were unemployed, according to FPI. But several neighborhoods were suffering heavily. An estimated 21 percent of black men on the North Shore of Staten Island were unemployed. The figure was 22 percent in Harlem, in the central Bronx and in southeast Queens.
“We are flooded by people coming in saying they will accept any job. Some of these are people with master’s degrees saying they need help,” says Councilman James Sanders, who represents the Queens neighborhoods of Rosedale and Laurelton. “Walk along Merrick Boulevard. Walk along Beach 20th Street. In the eyes of many, you will see fear.” In west Brooklyn (the neighborhoods of Red Hook and Park Slope), the black-male unemployment rate, according to the FPI’s admittedly rough estimate, was 46 percent.
To some, the scale of the crisis merits new nomenclature. Recession doesn’t cut it. At a rally at City Hall in mid-January, activists from the group Community Voices Heard compared the 2010 economy to the Great Depression. They call it the “New Depression.” Indeed, black unemployment is now as high or higher than the nationwide unemployment rate in 1931 or 1936 through 1939. In December, the President held a jobs summit at the White House, where Vice President Joe Biden told an anecdote his grandfather favored. “When the guy from Throop is out of work, it’s an economic slowdown. When your brother-in-law is out of work, it’s a recession. When you’re out of work, it’s a depression,” he said. “And it is a depression for over 10 million Americans.”
Indeed. And while it’s gotten little notice from politicians and scant attention in the media, it is indisputably true that those unlucky Americans are disproportionately black. Given the severity of the employment crisis for blacks in New York and around the U.S., some black leaders have grown frustrated with the orientation of last year’s stimulus package, which they feel dispensed economic medicine widely, without triage for the communities that needed it most. “We’re told that a rising tide raises all boats,” Jesse Jackson said at his annual Wall Street Project conference in New York in January. “Wall Street and Harlem are on the same island. Wall Street is rising. Harlem is sinking.” Recent hints that the recession is over haven’t changed that.
For the black labor force, the condition is not just serious, it is chronic. Blacks have suffered higher joblessness for decades. But the recession is making it worse. And the presence of a black man in the most powerful office on earth has stoked the urgency to addressing decades-old disparities.
“This is not new to the African-American community,” says the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president of the board at the Hip Hop Caucus, an advocacy group that aims to transform the inner cities’ cultural profile into progressive political power. “What is new are some of the political forces that are in place. Either you are at the table or you are on the menu. For too long, communities of color have been on the menu.”
Are they at the table at last?