An “Old” New Year’s Resolution

By: Marc H. Morial

President and CEO

National Urban League

For several reasons this season’s annual festival marking the end of the old year and looking with anticipation to the new takes on a special meaning for us at the National Urban League.

One is that 2005 is the 95th-anniversary of the Urban League’s founding at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when black Americans were confined to a very small corner of American life and the prospect of their participating in that society on a plane of equality seemed an impossible dream.

Another is that the New Year is also the anniversary of several significant events in the larger African-American—and thus, American—history as well.

It’s the 140th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and thus, the end of Negro slavery.

It’s the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery (Alabama) Bus Boycott, the nonviolent uprising against Southern segregation that launched the mass-action phase of the Civil Rights Movement and sounded the death knell for legalized racism.

And it’s the 40th anniversary of Congressional enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which, by guaranteeing federal protection of blacks’ right to vote in the South, made America a democracy in fact, not just rhetoric.

Yes, from that perspective there’s a great deal to celebrate.

But, from where we stand, the purpose of the celebration should not be to rest.

Instead, the purpose has to be rooted in the other tradition of celebrating New Year: remembering the past in order to absorb the inspiration to forge a better future, to set new goals and achieve them.

In that regard, we, and America as a whole, have no shortage of work to do.

It goes without saying that all Americans’ future, at least in immediate terms, is marked by the threatened physical peril of a global war of terror that heeds neither rules nor boundaries.

However, there are also dangers we face on the domestic front—less spectacular in nature, less immediate, to be sure. But in the long run they could quite severely undermine America’s social cohesion, its internal security and its ability to compete in the global marketplace.
Many of those points of danger are set out in a welter of statistics that describe facets of America’s economy.

One is the sharp difference in prospects for employment between blacks and whites.

America’s come a long way from the historic moment in 2000 when the black unemployment rate fell to an historic post-World War Two low of 7.0 percent.

Actually, it didn’t “fall.” It was driven there, as a study of more than 300 metropolitan areas by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed, by the rush of poor black males in the late 1990s to take the low-wage service-sector jobs that a, for once, welcoming labor market had finally made available to them.

That signal event refuted decades of tendentious “culture-of-poverty” rhetoric that the high levels of unemployment afflicting the black poor was their own fault.

Syndicated columnist E. J. Dionne wrote at the time that “those who argued for years that the plight of the poor owed more to what was wrong with the economy than to what was wrong with the poor have been proved right.” Princeton professor Jennifer L. Hochschild similarly remarked that “Poor blacks never lost faith in work, education and individual effort. What’s different now is that they can do something about it.”

Yet, now, the latest federal unemployment data show the black unemployment rate at an alarming 10.8 percent, exactly twice the current national rate of 5.4 percent and one of the highest levels it’s recorded since the 2001 economic recession began in March of that year and ended eight months later.

Indeed, since that devastating year, the black unemployment rate, with the exception of just a few months, has remained above 10 percent even as unemployment among other labor-market groups has moderated

That means that the recession, which ended relatively soon for most of the rest of America, has yet to do so for Black America, as University of Minnesota economist Samuel L. Myers, Jr. noted last year in the Urban League’s The State of Black America 2004.

Myers said that it was not at all clear that Black America as a whole would soon recoup the economic gains it had attained by the end of the 1990s—words borne out by his own and other recent studies showing the wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans has substantially increased in the last five years.

This worrisome situation is just one reason why the sense of mission which long ago brought the Urban League into being—to improve the status of African Americans and enable them to attain the full measure of their American citizenship—is as important now as it was then.

The words describing our New Year’s resolution have changed over the years. But the resolve remains the same.

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