President Barack Obama hasn’t leveraged the full force of federal agencies to target systemic and historical inequities that keep blacks in the U.S. behind whites in employment, opportunity and wealth, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. said. The veteran civil rights activist criticized the president this week amid a nationwide campaign to inspire a sense of empowerment among African-Americans and accountability in government and corporations toward disadvantaged populations.
Jackson, who fought poverty and racism alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, launched the campaign this year amid ongoing strife over police shootings in communities of color and economic inequalities. He said the high rate of black unemployment has been a lasting consequence of slavery and past legal discrimination that Obama, the first African-American commander in chief, should have dealt with more directly.
“The unfinished business is this issue of targeting racial justice,” Jackson told International Business Times in a wide-ranging interview about ideas for lifting people out of poverty. Even as job growth has been sustained month-over-month during the bulk of Obama’s presidency, the recovery from the 2007-09 financial crisis has been slowest for African-Americans -- and that has troubled both Jackson and economists.
“He has the view that racial injustice is something that requires a vote [in Congress],” Jackson said, referring to the president. “Blacks are without a targeted plan. Without one, we’ll never have an even playing field.”
In the second quarter of 2015, the black unemployment rate dipped below 10 percent for the first time in seven years, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. In June, the national unemployment rate was 5.3 percent, while the rate for African Americans was 9.5 percent. Whites have had an unemployment rate of 4.6 percent. Asians and Latinos were jobless at a rate of 3.8 percent and 6.6 percent, respectively.
Valerie Wilson, an economist and director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, said a national unemployment rate above 10 percent was considered a crisis. But when the rate remained above 10 percent for blacks, there was less urgency outside of the black community to consider it a crisis, she said.
“The steps that were taken at the beginning of the recession, the Recovery Act, was a broad intervention for the economy as a whole and that helped African-Americans,” Wilson said. “Beyond that, I can’t point to anything specific that has been done by the White House to target black unemployment.”
Obama has continuously acknowledged African-American joblessness as a problem, but recently framed it as a symptom of bad criminal justice policies. “In the African American community, a big reason [for high unemployment] is that you've got young people with criminal records who are finding themselves unemployable,” Obama said in talk at the historically black college St. Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, in May. “Now, that's not just bad for that individual, that's bad for their children, that's bad for the community.”
Jackson said the president has experienced an unfair amount of opposition, much of it racially motivated, from conservatives in the federal government. But that should not have prevented him from directing his Cabinet to do more without Congress’ help, the civil rights leader added.
“It’s time not for a national police summit in places like Baltimore, but for an urban reconstruction summit, where all the agencies are used in that reconstruction,” said Jackson, who is president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, based in Chicago. “There is an opportunity to pull together government agencies -- [housing, education, transportation departments] -- and make something work.”
Jackson spoke with IBTimes on a number of issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement, his campaign to push for racial diversity at tech companies and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
International Business Times: We’ll mark one year since Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri, on Sunday. Why did that shooting become a lightning rod for young civil rights activists?
The Rev. Jesse Jackson: You have a build-up to Michael Brown and Ferguson, in that there was Rodney King and the four policemen captured on camera [beating him] and walking free [1991-92]. You had the Amadou Diallo case in New York -- police shot the man 41 times and they walked free . You had the Abner Louima case in New York . You had the [Oscar Grant] case in Oakland, California . We had the Trayvon Martin case . It kept building. It seemed as though we hit the fever pitch in Ferguson, in part because the young man was shot unarmed and laid in the street, bleeding on a hot summer day. But as people reacted to that, they brought in the tanks, which revived the worst images and fears of the '60s. It defined that moment. The fact that the killer, again, got off for justifiable homicide made people feel a profound sense of irreverence. Therefore, it became part of the Black Lives Matter [movement.]
IBTimes: Is policing in American better today? Did the national protests have a positive impact?
Jackson: Even if it’s had a positive effect, it has not stopped the killing. But what has happened since Ferguson is [police] sensitivity has risen higher. Cameras have been the newest, biggest factor. If the camera hadn’t been rolling in North Charleston, South Carolina, in the Walter Scott case, there would have been a different outcome. The role of the camera has exposed [some police] as being dishonest and liars. The officer in the Cincinnati case [Ray Tensing], who said he was dragged by the motorist’s [Samuel Dubose] car, was lying. The officer in the North Charleston case [Michael Slager] said he was abused by the victim [Walter Scott], was lying. So what the cameras are doing is exposing. There was a time that people would believe the police and not the dead. Now the cameras are speaking for the dead. It’s exposing the “blue code of silence."
IBTimes: What would Dr. King have said about today's activism, the Black Lives Matter protests and the diversity of participants in the demonstrations?
Jackson: He would applaud the fact that Black Lives Matter has been nonviolent and militant. He would applaud the fact that it is a very diverse project -- people black, white and brown, male and female. But he would really be focused more on the government’s role in [community] investment. We were on our way to Washington, when he was killed, to challenge the government to shift its resources from the war on Vietnam abroad to the war on poverty at home. It was a plan not to destroy Vietnam, but to reconstruct urban America. There is no present plan for urban reconstruction.
IBTimes: Social media has been a critical tool in the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, but diversity at Twitter, Facebook and other tech companies is abysmal. Why is that an issue that you have taken up?
Jackson: It’s the fastest-growing industry in the world. And we [blacks and Latinos] have been marginalized by new industries. These are post-civil rights companies that have records as bad as the old companies 50 years ago. When you look at the boards and the corporate suites … there is no pressure to get them to comply [with diversity initiatives.] These companies have big government contracts. There should be some obligation for them to honor the rules of [the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] and come into compliance.
IBTimes: We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act on Thursday. Why are voting rights still in danger?
Jackson: The forces that fought [against] the right of blacks to vote for 95 years have never stopped trying to diminish the Voting Rights Act. When Section 4 was removed in 2013, it’s had the effect of removing oversight. [Section 4 established a formula for identifying areas where racial discrimination at the polls was "more prevalent," and recommended remedial actions.] We see a clear plan right now to diminish our vote. The whites who are hurt by this -- white Democrats -- are much too silent.