Tuesday, February 16, 2010

“Race-neutral” policies are not necessarily neutral

For the first time since he took office, President Obama met at the White House with a group of black civil rights leaders February 10. The meeting followed by a day a New York Times story headlined “Frustration at Obama’s Nuancd Style on Race.”

After the hour-long meeting, one participant, Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP, told New York Times reporter Helene Cooper: “In these times, it didn’t make sense to talk about race-based initiatives.”

Ms. Cooper reported that “as he did today, Mr. Obama has said that broader efforts to help the disadvantaged will also benefit blacks.” (She did not quote the President directly.)

In other words, the administration’s policy is “race neutral.” It’s a policy with some appeal. For the first black U.S. president, it deflects the charge that his very origins will cause him to favor persons of his own race.

But how neutral is neutrality on race?

Mr. Obama would be wise to read a book, “More Than Just Race,” by William Julius Wilson, a professor at the University of Chicago. Mr. Wilson, who is black, used to believe that public policy should always be color blind. His book explains why he no longer thinks so.

Take the implact of globalization, or “complex global economic transformation,” as Mr. Wilson calls it. Economic and political leaders did not make a decision to shape globalization so that, by the massive shift of manufacturing jobs abroad and other means, it would discriminate against many black Americans. But that indeed was and is one of its effects. Mr. Wilson documents the unintended racial consequences in detail. My summary does not do justice to the reality.

At the bottom end of the pay and skill scales, globalization’s increased demand for workers should have been a boon for inner-city blacks, who generally rank low in job skills. However, the urban manufacturing industries that once provided equal job opportunities by the millions have largely moved abroad, thanks to the combination of U.S. free trade and investment policies and the foreign attractions of low wages and weak labor protection laws weakly enforced.

Meanwhile, at the top end of the last century’s expanded U.S. labor market, many better-educated blacks landed good paying suburban jobs, as managers and professionals, for example, thanks to a decline in employment discrimination, They and their kin joined the general exodus of American urbanites into the suburbs.

The blacks who were left behind thereby became more concentrated than ever before in poor communities, more isolated from the rest of America, more embittered by their plight. Black women, who have traditionally held jobs in service industries, were more fortunate. Most service industries can’t escape to other countries.

“The economic predicament of low-skilled black men in the inner city has reached catastrophic proportions,” Mr. Wilson wrote a year ago. Their plight has not diminished since then. It needs to become a priority in the Obama administration.

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