It would be great, actually, if Obama used his day of triumph – which officially marks the 84th birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – to remind his audiences that places like the Falls, Buffalo, Pontiac, Detroit, Los Angeles and Atlantic City are suffering from decades of benign federal neglect.
Say this loud and clear: Money alone will not solve issues of school dropout, random crime, chronic unemployment, blighted housing and urban flight. But it is equally clear now – a half-century after the civil rights struggle that King led – that these corroding problems will not be solved without federal cash.
Obama's two elections represent one measure of the movement's success, as do the elections of African-American governors, the reign of broadcast stars, school superintendents, a sprinkling of business leaders and sports icons. But the victory has not been broad. Political equality has advanced. Yet economic deliverance for tens of millions of minority Americans in the cities is not on the horizon.
Black unemployment is double that of the rest of the nation. Joblessness for African-American youth is 22 percent, roughly double that for whites. The Great Recession, you say. In prosperous 1968, the year King was murdered, white unemployment was 3.2 percent and black joblessness was 6.7. The charts show that same disparity over the succeeding four decades, boom or bust.
Face it; those are the fruits of tacit segregation.
Democratic congresses under President Lyndon Johnson realized the country couldn't undo three centuries of slavery and oppression by passing some laws letting minorities vote, sit anywhere on a bus or in a restaurant, and go to the same schools as whites. So Congress passed massive programs to help rebuild the cities.
Buffalo's downtown would scarcely exist without $2 billion worth of these federal projects, loans and grants in the '70s and '80s. After Johnson came “the new Nixon,” President Richard Nixon, whose Southern Strategy would exploit America's charity fatigue, resentment of black advancement and anti-war demonstrations for the Republicans.
A Nixon aide, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a Democratic New York senator, chimed in that a period of political “benign neglect” of black America would be helpful. One by one, the Democrats' federal aid programs to the states and cities were quietly block-granted, squeezed down and killed.
The last major urban aid program was President Bill Clinton's COPS, for Community Oriented Policing Services, to add 100,000 police to city streets. As part of a GOP program to resegregate the budget, that program was zeroed out for almost eight years. Most of the U.S. money the metros get is used to militarize their police.
Every year, House Republicans slash the last of these programs: Community Development Block Grants. And Democrats, under the sway of Wall Street or weapons makers, meekly go along with it. Cities have become politically unfashionable.
Last March, the former mayor of New Orleans, Marc Haydel Morial, head of the National Urban League, said, “the state of black America is under attack.”
The community organizer from South Chicago, Obama, beleaguered by two Republican wars and budget crises, has proposed no new urban projects, no programs to lift the disenfranchised trapped in the cities. Maybe he will now. Announcing an early end to our occupation of Afghanistan, Obama said the time has come to rebuild this country. Let's hope.
America's cities suffer from federal neglect