Black History Month in February will mark just over a year since the election of Barack Obama. The election of the first African-American President in the former land of slavery was a monumental and historic event for many. Still, in this Black History Month and beyond, the real day-to-day lives for tens of millions of African Americans forces the question: Is the rise of this one man also the rise of the great mass of black people? And if not, what gives?

The unemployment rate for African Americans has continued to be around two times higher than the rate for white Americans over the last 10 years without exception. In 2009, a year of immense job destruction, the unemployment rate for blacks averaged around 15% – 16% and climbing. For whites, unemployment has been eight to nine percent. One of the most shocking facts of life for black youth is the catastrophic rate of unemployment. In November, 2009, over 48% of African Americans 16-19 years of age were unemployed. The rate for whites of the same age was half of that.

Even before the recent foreclosure wave hit, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reported that 47.2% of blacks owned a home while 75.2% of whites were homeowners. As subprime mortgages were often concentrated in black neighborhoods, homes in these areas have faced a much higher rate of foreclosure than in white neighborhoods.

“Criminal Injustice System”
If the social misery created by economic injustice were not enough, racial discrimination is also rampant in the policing and legal systems.

As NY Times columnist Bob Herbert said in a July 31 column, “Black people are constantly being stopped, searched, harassed, publicly humiliated, assaulted, arrested and sometimes killed by police officers in this country for no good reason.”

The racist crimes against the Jena Six, Sean Bell, Amadou Dialo, and Oscar Grant outline the daily risks and humiliations of life in communities of color where police behave like an occupying power.

While blacks are only 13% of the total population, we make up half of the prison population. In 2006, according to a study by the conservative Rand Corporation, “the New York City Police Department (NYPD) stopped a half-million pedestrians for suspected criminal involvement… 89 percent of the stops involved nonwhites.”

Many African Americans are set up for misery, beginning with the severely underfunded schools in predominantly black neighborhoods. Over half a century since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Project annual report shows that 39% of blacks now attend intensely segregated schools. Non-white schools in poor neighborhoods are starved of resources year after year, simply out of political convenience for politicians.

Yet, there is not a single Obama policy aimed at specifically addressing the racial disparity in unemployment, foreclosures, or mistreatment by the police and legal system. The only tangible thing Obama has done so far is to restore staff to the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department after it was downsized during the Bush years. The rest of what Obama has offered to African Americans can be narrowed down to his presence in the White House along with some stern lecturing about personal responsibility.

“Without Struggle There is no Progress” – Frederick Douglass
The existence of Obama in the White House has massive symbolic significance as the elimination of another racial barrier. But in the long run, the symbolism will not have much meaning without real initiatives to challenge institutional racism.

Capitalism uses racism as a divide-and-rule tactic to create obstacles in the struggle for economic and political rights for ordinary people. It will take a new mass movement of working people and youth to defeat discrimination in all spheres of life for people of color. Any meaningful demands that will transform the lives of African Americans will inevitably have to challenge the limits to equality imposed by the big business’ profit system.

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