Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: Trump, Jay-Z and economic progress of blacks

Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: Trump, Jay-Z and economic progress of blacks

Donald Trump's trumpeting of the historically low official African-American unemployment rate is designed to drown out his demeaning commentary on African people and to direct us away from critically examining the racial effects of his policies. Jay-Z is correct to reject Trump's political tactic. However, his response is inadequate.

While interesting, Jay-Z's existential argument about happiness evades the essence of Trump's claim. Trump's statement is misleading on five grounds. First, he takes credit for a trend that precedes his regime. Second, the downward trend in blacks' official unemployment rate actually slowed under Trump. Third, to make sense of unemployment figures, you have to evaluate the quality of the jobs created. Are they part-time; do they pay a living wage? Fourth, unemployment rates should be located in the context of other major economic indicators. Fifth, the issue is really about racial discrimination in employment; thus, the figure that matters is the ratio of the African Americans' unemployment rate compared to that of white Americans.

African-American unemployment rates consistently fell after it reached a high of nearly 17 percent in August of 2011. The downward trend is attributable to policies of President Barack Obama. Specifically, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen's decision to keep interest rates low, drove unemployment down further. A critic of Yellen's successful approach, Trump refused to reappoint her for a second term.

Trump should not receive credit for the lowest rate of unemployment among African-Americans in 45 years. African-American unemployment fell 1 percent during Trump's year in office. Under President Obama it declined 1.8 percent in 2013, 1.5 in 2014, 1.9 in 2015 and 1 percent in 2016. Under Trump, the rate of decline in African-American unemployment tied Obama's worse year.

Since the beginning of the new millennium, the American economy has made a structural shift to involuntary part-time employment. African-American and Latinx workers are disproportionately affected by the reduced availability of full-time employment. A December 2016 report from the Economic Policy Institute reveals that more than 41 percent of involuntary part-time workers are African-American and Latinx. An October 2017 report in the Harvard Business Review argues that employment discrimination against African-Americans remains as high as it was 25 years ago.

To make sense of unemployment data it should be placed in the context of other major economic indicators such as labor force participation and median hourly wages. African-Americans' presence in the labor force, employed individuals and those actively seeking work, has consistently declined since 1999. When Obama left office, it stood at 62 percent. At the end of Trump's first year, it was virtually the same at 62.1 percent.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in the last quarter of 2017, Trump's first year, Black women working fulltime earned 82.7 percent of white women's median hourly wages. While African-American men's median hourly earnings was 69.3 percent of white men's. In the last quarter of Obama's administration, Black women earned 83.5 percent of white women's median hourly wage and African-American men made 73.6 percent of white men's. In sum, in terms of median hourly wages, African-Americans fared worse during Trump's first year than they did in Obama's last.

Underlying Jay-Z's response to Trump is the larger question of racial oppression, race-based disparities and inequalities. In that sense, what Jay-Z is questioning is the criteria for measuring progress. While his countermeasure, happiness, is too utopian, he is right to contest Trump's misleading calculation. It's not African-Americans' unemployment rate that's an indicator of improvement or deterioration, but rather, the relationship between black folks' unemployment rate and white Americans'. It's the degree of disparity that demonstrates the extent of racial oppression.

In regard to the official unemployment rate, there has been a slight improvement. African-American unemployment stands at 6.8 percent and white Americans' at 3.7 percent. Traditionally, black folks' unemployment rate has been double white Americans'. It now is about 1.85 times. In Obama's last year, unemployment for African Americans stood at 8.4 percent or 1.95 times white Americans' 4.3 percent. The difference is statistically insignificant.

Moreover, the official unemployment rate represents an undercount. Known as the U-3 unemployment rate, the official count does not include people who did not look for work in the previous month. The U-6 or underemployment rate takes into account the total unemployed, including those marginalized from the labor force and those employed part-time. Using this more realistic measure, African-American underemployment was 12.7 percent compared to white Americans' 6.5 percent in November 2017 or 1.95 times.

Trump deserves no credit for the historically low official unemployment rate of African Americans. The lowest rate in 45 years is a product of a trend initiated by President Barack Obama's economic policies. Furthermore, the incorporation of a wider set of economic indicators reveals that black folks' economic condition has gotten worse under the Trump regime.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is schajua@gmail.com.

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