Race Riots

Ferguson Riots Point to More Trouble for African Americans, Despite Gains

Ferguson just the beginning of more racial unrest?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The situation in Missouri doesn’t overshadow the fundamental progress America has made since the advent of the civil rights era.

  • Facts


    • The United States has made great progress in race relations since the days of segregation, but racial equality remains an illusion.
    • Since the recession, the American dream has been lost for many citizens, although African-Americans have been disproportionally hurt.
    • Mr. Obama is no longer a beacon of hope for many black Americans and they are severing their allegiance to him.
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The news from the United States sounds threatening: riots in Missouri after the police fatally shot an 18-year-old African-American. Now the National Guard has to move in. It awakens memories of a burning Mississippi from the 1960s. Is the country relapsing into a period of racial unrest? Was Barack Obama’s election as the first black U.S. president just a fairy tale?

The answer is no, and it cannot be stressed enough. America has changed fundamentally in the last half century.

Let us just remind ourselves: in the 1960s, white and black people sat in segregated seats on the bus and went to different schools. Since then, much has been achieved. The African-American middle class has expanded. The number of marriages between white and black people is increasing. For Americans, the racism of those days is unthinkable today. That’s where the progress has been made – inside people’s heads.

But anyone who thought that with Mr. Obama’s election the problems of African-Americans would disappear was simply naive. The economic crisis affected the black middle class harder than other sections of the population. At 11.4 percent, unemployment among African Americans is almost twice as high as the country’s average.

For Americans, the racism of the 1960s is unthinkable today. That’s where the progress has been made - inside people’s heads.

It is a structural problem. The black middle class is predominantly at the lower end of the income scale. The financial crisis hurt all Americans who live from one paycheck to the next and have little savings. Consider sub-prime mortgages: These were issued generously to home buyers who had low credit ratings. When the real estate market crashed, a disproportionately large number of black families lost the roof over their heads.

Now the U.S. economy is growing again.  But real wages are hardly moving. For a long time, the recovery did not include the labor market at all. Now, the situation is improving, especially for qualified employees. But all others have problems finding jobs. Traditionally, African-Americans are strongly represented in public service. Yet, with budget reductions and cost-saving policies of the federal, state and local governments, this path to middle-class status has become stony.

The American dream has been lost for many Americans, not just African-Americans.  And riots are hardly surprising in the face of police brutality in Missouri.

This is painful for Mr. Obama on two levels. There is not much he can do about the financial crisis and labor market structures, but he also cuts a weak figure as a beacon of hope for African-Americans, who are severing their allegiance to him. Another cause for concern for Mr. Obama and the Democrats is the congressional elections in November.

The author can be reached at: jahn@handelsblatt.com

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