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State of the Dream 2009: Report Finds People of Color in US Endure Silent Economic Depression

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The unemployment rate remains highest among people of color. Black unemployment is now at over 12.6 percent, and the jobless rate for young black men is considerably higher. We speak to Dedrick Muhammad, co-author of the new report “State of the Dream 2009: The Silent Depression” published by United for a Fair Economy. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Federal Reserve predicted on Wednesday the nation’s unemployment rate could rise to nearly nine percent this year, far higher than previously expected. In November, the Fed predicted the unemployment rate would not exceed 7.6 percent in 2009, but it has already hit that mark.

The unemployment rate remains highest among people of color.
Black unemployment is now at over 12.6 percent, and the jobless rate for young black men is considerably higher.

Dedrick Muhammad, who is still with us in Baltimore, is co-author of a new report titled “State of the Dream 2009: The Silent Depression” published by United for a Fair Economy. The report found people of color in the United States are already experiencing a silent economic depression.

Dedrick Muhammad, lay out some of the findings in your report.

DEDRICK MUHAMMAD: Well, I think one of the most important findings is that — the idea that the African American community never emerged out of the 2001 recession. As the country was talking about things were going well in 2005, 2006, we saw that African Americans were actually having a decline in the employment rate, a decline in per capita income.

And so, we, African Americans — and actually, you’re going to see more and more working-class Americans were going through, actually, a recession for years, and now we’re really at a state where things are getting so bad that I would call it a depression. I mean, we’re looking at African American, as you said, unemployment rate of about 13 percent. This foreclosure crisis is disproportionately going to affect African American and Latino community, who were specifically targeted with predatory lending. So we’re really dealing with a national crisis, but a crisis that’s going to hurt working-class communities, which are disproportionately people of color.

And as you mentioned Eric Holder’s statement, there hasn’t been enough courage by political officials to adequately deal with this — with some of these unique situations that’s really going to require the nation’s resources.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this high unemployment rate comes on top of an existing wealth gap that is rarely talked about, too, so that actually in the African American and Latino communities, families don’t have much in terms of assets to fall back on in hard times. Isn’t that true?

DEDRICK MUHAMMAD: Oh, that’s absolutely right. The overwhelming majority of African Americans and Latinos do not even have a savings enough that would keep them going for three months. And as you see growing unemployment and, what’s not talked enough about, underemployment, there is not that safety cushion to help you get through hard times. African Americans only have about 15 percent of the wealth of white Americans. And so, again, African American community, Latino communities, and also just working-class communities as a whole, are in a much more dire situation than I think is truly recognized. And we need some political courage to deal with these issues adequately.

AMY GOODMAN: The unemployment rate, overall, they’re talking seven, eight, nine, ten percent. People gasp. But you say that unemployment for African Americans is in the double digits. Talk about where they are now and where you see it going.

DEDRICK MUHAMMAD: Well, the most recent data I’ve seen is that African American unemployment rate is around 13 percent, and there are estimates now, which I think are correct, that African American unemployment can reach up to 20 percent and higher. When you look back a year ago, every estimate of how bad things are going to be underestimated how bad things currently are. And I think that’s still going to be true. So — and if you look — I mean, the current unemployment rate of about 13 percent is a higher unemployment rate that — white Americans haven’t had such a high unemployment rate since about the time of the Depression. So we’re truly in a crisis.

And I’m hoping that there will be more bold statements by people like Eric Holder, by political officials, about how are we going to address this racial wealth divide, because I think the fact that America has been a nation of cowards in dealing with this issue, people are scared to deal with the issue, which they consider divisive. But what’s truly divisive is the fact that a third of black children are living in poverty, that indigenous people are living in a state that most Americans don’t realize and that we haven’t gotten past the long legacy of disenfranchisement of people of color in this country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in the past week, we’ve seen the announcements — well, the signing of the stimulus package and also the announcement of President Obama’s mortgage foreclosure plan to deal with the mortgage crisis. How do you see these two initiatives affecting the situation in the black community?

DEDRICK MUHAMMAD: What I see is that these — the economic stimulus package I see as much more as an economic survival package. I mean, important things are in it, like extending unemployment benefits, trying to help people with health insurance. But these are more so going to help people get through this rough economic time; it’s not going to get them out of this rough economic time.

And again, if the idea is just to stimulate the economy, just get the economy going again like it was in the ’90s, African Americans were still — still had a third of black children living in poverty at that time period. It’s not good enough for me to go back to the ’90s, where we have a growing economy but maintaining great racial inequality. We have to do something much different. It has to have much more bolder proposals. I’m glad to see that the government realizes that they have to play a role in stimulating the economy. I hope they see that their role is also to stimulate greater racial equality in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean when you write, “To a large extent, African Americans never emerged from the 2001 recession”?

DEDRICK MUHAMMAD: What I mean is, is again is, through 2001 through about 2007, African American unemployment — African American employment rate was actually declining. Their per capita income was also declining. And, you know, you can even go back a little further than that and look at — I mean, even for white working men, they, for over the last twenty years, have been having had their income declining. The middle class, the working class in this country have been in economic — have been suffering economically and have been using debt to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. These chickens have come home to roost. We can no longer use this debt. And now I think we’re realizing that for many Americans, the middle-class lifestyle is unsustainable. And the large question has to be, what are we going to do about this?

AMY GOODMAN: Dedrick Muhammad, thanks for joining us, senior organizer and research associate at the Institute for Policy Studies. The report, “State of the Dream 2009,” with United for a Fair Economy.

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