For African Americans these are Dickensian days. They are the best of times and the worst of times.
The good news first: Black Americans feel better about themselves. A Pew survey from January this year reveals huge optimism. The percentage of black Americans who think blacks are better off now than they were five years ago has almost doubled since 2007 while the percentage who think the community is worse off has more than halved. The poll also revealed a significant increase in the percentages who believe the gap in the standard of living between whites and blacks is decreasing, who are satisfied with their local community and who believe blacks and whites are getting on very well or pretty well.
But then the bad news: However it is Black Americans may feel, they are actually faring worse than they have in a long time. According to the Economic Policy Institute, unemployment among blacks is projected to hit a 25-year high of 17.2 percent, with that figure expected to rise to 20 percent in five states (Michigan, Alabama, South Carolina, Ohio and President Obama’s own Illinois). That’s worse that in the midst of the Reagan era. For black teens, unemployment is 44 percent. Meanwhile, foreclosures among blacks are increasing almost 50 percent faster than for whites. Moreover, the gap between the prospects of whites and blacks is widening, with black unemployment still rising even as white unemployment holds steady.
And it’s not as though they were falling from a great height. When this particular recession began a third of the black middle class was already threatened by a fall into a lower economic level, according to a study by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University and Demos, a nonpartisan public policy research organization. “In fact, you could say that for African-Americans the recession is over,” wrote Barbara Ehrenreich last year. “What’s happening now is more like a depression.”
So why, in a period of such a drastic fall in living standards, opportunities, income, wealth and employment would black Americans feel so upbeat? Is this a collective spasm of cognitive dysfunction or the dawning of an era of race-based false consciousness?
“Despite the bad economy, blacks’ assessments about the state of black progress in America have improved more dramatically during the past two years than at any time in the past quarter century,” concludes the Pew Center.
The most logical explanation for these apparent contradictions lies in the electoral earthquake that produced the first black president. Projecting onto Mr. Obama’s victory, black Americans now feel that many things are now possible that were previously unimaginable. This is not because they ever thought blacks were incapable of performing all possible tasks; but because they now believe that white people cannot prevent them from doing so. Remember black support for Obama in the primaries only seriously kicked in once the overwhelmingly white Iowa had decided to favor him.
The fact that their actual livelihoods are in decline in this moment is materially important, but it hardly changes their worldview about how America or racism operates The notion that a black politician may have risen to such heights, however, does.
To that extent whatever contradictions exist within the black community in particular are reflected in the American polity and culture in general. Obama’s political rise was not consistent with the social and economic rise of black Americans but aberrant to it. His election made Americans more confident and hopeful at the very moment – a period of economic crisis and diplomatic isolation – when they had most to fear.
There has always been a tension between the symbolic importance of Mr. Obama’s victory and the substantial results that could ever be produced by such a victory. To The President’s most loyal base of supporters change is not just a slogan but an urgent human need. The trouble is that the system in which he is operating is so anchored to the vested interests of the powerful that he could not possibly produce change on the scale and at the pace that is needed. The fact that he is pushing the country in the right direction does not mean he is able to push it fast or far enough.
It seems the world may need more for its future health and well-being than what U.S. politics can produce right now. His best may just not be good enough. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he is not dedicated to improving things for the poor, among whom black people are overrepresented. But we cannot measure his dedication, only his results, and so far in terms of delivering for the poorest they have not been great.
There is little suggestion that anyone else who could have been elected would be doing much better or that Mr. Obama is doing less than his best. So the symbolic resonance of his victory remains untainted for black Americans, even as the substantial improvements that were hoped from it remain elusive. And while symbols should not be mistaken for substance, they should not be dismissed as insubstantial either.