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The truth about Trump and unemployment in black America, according to economists

"He's reaping the rewards for staying the course of sound decisions made by the Obama administration."

President Donald Trump. CREDIT: Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images
President Donald Trump. CREDIT: Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump proudly proclaims that he — and he alone — is responsible for the record low unemployment figures among black Americans. As much as the president would like to take credit for any seemingly positive trends in America, that statement is yet another whopper of a presidential lie.

It is true that black Americans’ unemployment fell to a record low of 6.8 percent in December, the most recent reporting period. Similarly, the Hispanic unemployment rate fell to 4.9 percent, which is close to a record low as well. Overall, the national unemployment rate is an impressive 4.1 percent.

But economists and other fiscal experts are near unanimous in clarifying that Trump had nothing to do with the good numbers because the downward trend line in black unemployment began years before he took office. Worse, Trump’s understanding of issues facing people of color is obviously nonexistent; he’s ignorant of the realities facing black Americans and the deep, structural inequalities that delineate their lives.

“He’s reaping the rewards for staying the course of sound decisions made by the Obama administration,” Janelle Jones, an economic analyst at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, told me Monday during a phone interview. “There’s nothing in [Trump’s] policies that have led to a quick turnaround in black unemployment over the past 12 months.”

Or, as Washington Post reporter Philip Bump noted recently, Trump is wrong to take credit for something he didn’t do:

It’s not as if black unemployment was 18 percent under Barack Obama and, as soon as Trump took office, it plummeted. Black unemployment fell fairly consistently from 2010 on, as did the rates for whites and Hispanics.

From January to December 2017, the unemployment rate among black Americans fell 1 percentage point. During the same period in 2016, it fell the same amount. In 2015, it fell 1.9 points. The previous year, it fell 1.5 points. The year before that, it fell 1.8 points.

Jones explained it well to me, suggesting the welcome unemployment news stems primarily from employers benefiting from years of economic expansion and therefore being forced to hire people — such as black workers — they otherwise overlook when times are tougher. “This is why [progressive economists] are all for getting the nation as close to full employment as possible,” she said. “And this is what it takes for blacks to see benefits from an expanding economy.”

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But full employment means different things to different people, based on their race. Even as black unemployment hit the record low, it remained nearly double the figure for white Americans. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for whites is 3.7 percent, almost half the 6.8 percent for black Americans.

If Trump truly understood how the economy works, he’d know that the double-difference disparity is a historic fixture of racial discrimination at play in our national economy. He can’t truly boast until black unemployment is in line with white unemployment.

In an insightful article for The Atlantic, Gillian White pointed out that differences between black and white unemployment figures is a stubborn relic of historic and institutional racist policies that no one — least of all Trump — has successfully addressed. “While it’s true that the most recent jobs report shows that the gap has narrowed a little, its existence still points to troubling discrepancies in the labor market that can’t all be explained away by differences in education and skills,” White wrote.

Nevertheless, like a sideshow carnival barker who takes credit for producing a summer storm in the midst of a prolonged drought, Trump didn’t hesitate to boast that he made it rain over black America. In a flurry of false tweets earlier this month, coinciding with the release of the unemployment figures, Trump claimed his policies are a mystical boon to black America.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Trump took issue with rapper/mogul Jay-Z, who appeared on CNN’s The Van Jones Show last weekend to factually argue that Trump hasn’t done much to benefit black people since he took office a year ago.

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It’s bad enough that Trump lies about his role in the economy and picks unpresidential flame wars with black entertainers, but the real shame comes in the fact that the president uses the disproportionate economic hardships faced by black workers as a political prop to hide his racist words and acts.

Trump’s true attitude toward people of color, black Americans in particular, becomes evident with close scrutiny of his words and behavior since taking office. He’s referred to black NFL players protesting racial injustice during the national anthem as “sons of bitches.” He supported white nationalists, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis “as good people” during racially charged protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, going so far as to blame “both sides” for the violence.

With his tweet attacking Jay-Z, Trump only perpetuates what is obvious to all outside his base of support. A recent Pew Research Center report showed that barely 10 percent of African Americans approve of Trump’s job performance.

In his response to Trump’s braggadocio over black unemployment, Jay-Z effectively explained why so few black Americans give the president credit for improving their lives.

“It is not about money at the end of the day,” Jay-Z told Jones. “Money does not equate to happiness. You’re missing the whole point. You treat people like human beings… Treat me bad and pay me well; it’s not going to lead to happiness.”