US President Barack Obama stood in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, at the weekend on the 50th anniversary of the march that led to voting rights for black people, to tell Americans that “doors of opportunity swung open” yet the fight for equality isn’t over.
“We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us,” Obama said in a fiery speech that aides said he largely penned himself. “We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.”
The bridge was a fitting backdrop for Obama, who is trying to secure a legacy in his last two years as president, of advancing the fortunes of middle-class Americans and especially of lifting the opportunities of young black people and tackling racial inequality.
However, the most recent jobs report highlights an economy in which young black people are faring worse than just about every other demographic group.
The unemployment rate for black people between the ages of 18 and 29 was 16.2% in February, about twice that of white people and almost triple the jobless rate for all US adults, according to an analysis of federal data by Generation Opportunity, a Virginia-based group for young adults, that advocates less government.
The disparity underscores how America’s first black president has overseen an economic recovery that bypassed many poor black people, deepening racial inequality. Somewhat lost in the wake of a damning report on racial discrimination by Ferguson police, the Obama administration has proposed a flurry of economic and policy initiatives to try to help black people.
The march at Selma followed the release on Thursday of a White House report outlining Obama’s efforts to help young black and Hispanic men and make that part of his legacy, after largely steering clear of discussing race earlier in his presidency.
Obama has, of late, publicly embraced tackling racial inequality as one of his chief missions.
He sought to draw attention to his My Brother’s Keeper mentoring programme on its one-year anniversary by hosting teenagers at the White House and conducting an interview with one of them for the oral history project StoryCorps.
Separately, he recently pushed to steer US federal grants toward historically black colleges, fund minority apprenticeships and address tensions between minorities and police, after a series of deadly confrontations involving unarmed black men.
“This is going to be something that I’m going to be devoting a lot of energy to,” Obama said. “Because it’s not just a black or a Hispanic problem — this is an American problem.”
The task has grown more difficult during his tenure, as an uneven recovery has left young black people falling further behind other groups.
The median net worth of black households fell 33.7% to $11,000 (€10,100) from 2010 to 2013, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by the Pew Research Center. By contrast, the median net worth of white households increased 2.4% to $141,900 during the same period.
For recent college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27, the 2013 unemployment rate was 12.4% for black people compared with 5.6% for others, according to a May report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. While black graduates have historically experienced higher unemployment rates than their peers, the gap has widened since 2007, the report found.
Similar post-recession trends have widened the racial divide on measures such as income, poverty, labour-force participation, and incarceration.
“There is an economic recovery in America, but unfortunately it’s not reaching many African-American families,” US Representative GK Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said after a meeting with Obama on February 10. “We wanted to inform the president that black America continues to be in a state of emergency.”
Many of the structural forces that contribute to racial disparities existed long before Obama’s presidency. In addition to discrimination, the challenges of growing up in poor neighbourhoods — with lower levels of educational attainment, higher poverty rates and more crime — have contributed to economic inequality for decades.
Compared with other children, black children were more than twice as likely to live in high poverty neighbourhoods and almost twice as likely to grow up in a single-parent household, according to an April report from the Annie E Casey Foundation, a Baltimore group advocating for at-risk children.
“My father left when I was two, so I didn’t know him either,” Obama told Noah McQueen, aged 18, a White House mentee, during an interview with National Public Radio’s StoryCorps programme last week. “As I get older, I start reflecting on how that affected me.”
Obama is backing several initiatives aimed at improving outcomes for young minorities, from helping finance college educations to easing criminal sentencing guidelines. In the wake of a US Department of Justice probe unveiling widespread harassment of young black residents by police in Ferguson, Obama released a report with recommendations for rebuilding trust between law enforcement and minority communities.
Yet his proposals have often stalled in the Republican-led Congress, and he has faced criticism for not doing enough to help the black voters who turned out in record numbers to elect him.
“The president and his administration have made some headway,” said Patrice Lee, outreach director for Generation Opportunity, which gets funding from the billionaire Koch brothers’ network of conservative donors and releases monthly reports on youth unemployment. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t been enough, considering the severity of the situation.”
Duresny Nemorin, who graduated from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in December, said that while she supports Obama, she has been left out of the economic recovery he’s been touting. She’s been seeking work for more than six months, and recently moved back in with her parents.
“I graduated with honours, studied abroad, speak more than one language and I’ve had a lot of internships,” said the Orlando resident, 23. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about my resume, but I still find it hard to find a job.’”
She often conceals her race on job applications, hoping it will improve her chances.