During his 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump was regularly taken to task by economists and journalists for gratuitously exaggerating the Black unemployment rate. In one speech in North Carolina, Trump went as far as proclaiming that “African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Ever, ever, ever.”
Now, just after one year in office, he is saying the exact opposite. In a celebratory Saturday morning tweet, the president wrote, “The African American unemployment rate fell to 6.8%, the lowest rate in 45 years. I am so happy about this News!”
On Monday morning he tweeted again: “African American unemployment is the lowest ever recorded in our country. The Hispanic unemployment rate dropped a full point in the last year and is close to the lowest in recorded history. Dems did nothing for you but get your vote! #NeverForget @foxandfriends”
This new optimistic outlook on Black employment is a sharp pivot away from his campaign comments that focused on segregated, high-poverty communities. In doing so, President Donald Trump has hastily forgone highlighting the plight of Black Americans who live in communities suffering from severe economic blight in ways that aren’t represented in the traditional national employment statistics—all as part of an effort to sell himself as a prolific and efficient executive in chief.
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During several stump speeches in 2016, Trump cited Black youth unemployment numbers north of 58 percent—a claim he underscored by stating that Black people “are living in hell,” and that “they have no jobs.”
While fact-checkers later found his statements to contain hyperbole, experts noted that Trump was, however insincerely, getting at a real issue. As Nikole Hannah-Jones reported in the New York Times in November 2016, Donald Trump was the first candidate in some time to discuss the issues of long-term unemployment in the Black community at length. “In his speeches, Trump was speaking more directly about the particular struggles of working-class black Americans and describing how the government should help them more than any presidential candidate in years,” she wrote.
Indeed, many politicians on both sides of the aisle—including House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and President Barack Obama—have glossed over the long-term effects that discrimination has had on the Black labor market, and Trump’s campaign comments, while overgeneralizing the nature of the racial unemployment gap, at least flailed in the right direction. However, now that he is in office, Trump has reversed course—likely as part of his efforts to bill himself the most successful first-year president.
Trump’s paradigm shift is both noteworthy and misleading for multiple reasons. First, during the campaign, his metric of Black American economic well-being was not the nationwide unemployment rate, but rather the regional rates of areas hardest hit by racial segregation and deindustrialization. During speeches on race, he’d regularly single out places like Milwaukee and the South Side of Chicago. But now, after a year in office, Trump’s administration has found it more convenient to switch away from benchmarks tied to segregated, high-poverty communities and instead to highlight the more favorable aggregated employment statistics of Black Americans nationwide.
The disparity between the national Black unemployment rate, and the numbers for Black residents living in cities like Chicago are the result of decades of discrimination and powerful macroeconomic forces. During the 20th century, redlining, systemic divestment, and employment discrimination ensured that broad swathes of Black neighborhoods in major cities would not have access to the investment and opportunity necessary to create a professional, Black middle class. During the same period, the suburbanization of factory work drained cities of vital job opportunities. And over the last 40 years, a combination of middle-class Black flight, continued public divestment, and the progression of globalization and automation have left many Black communities in city centers with increasingly dismal job prospects.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump mentioned these places and the difficulties that they faced. But now he is attempting to mask their plight—which is largely unchanged. For example, in June 2017, even as the national Black unemployment rate was plummeting to 7.1 percent, in Chicago, 60 percent of 20- to 24-year-old Black residents were still out of work, according to CityLab.
But Trump’s victory lap tweets are misleading beyond that bait-and-switch. The rates of Black unemployment, for instance, are still nearly twice as high as those of white unemployment: Systemic discrimination is not limited to city centers. And far beyond economic growth and robust hiring, there are several reasons why the Black unemployment rate can move down, and not all of them involve higher rates of job availability or university enrollment.
As Princeton University Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. has documented in his book, Democracy in Black, after over a decade of sluggish economic performance, many Black Americans have dropped out of the labor force altogether and are not counted among the unemployed. And according to reporting by the Associated Press, the significant decrease in the number of Black people looking for work is one of the contributing factors to the recent drop in Black unemployment. But even to the degree that the nation’s economy is expanding and hiring more Black people, many of these jobs are not highly paid. Even with the new hires, the Washington Post has reported that wages remain stagnant across the board.
To actually put a dent in racial employment disparities, Trump has a wide array of options. He could do anything from making a robust investment in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, to championing robust green infrastructure spending that targets blighted Black communities, to creating a fully scaled federal jobs hiring program as endorsed by the Movement for Black Lives policy platform. All of these policies reasonably stand to change the status quo for communities suffering at the hands of decades of discrimination. Accomplishing any of them, however, will require being honest and consistent about the scope in the nature of racialized unemployment in the United States.
Trump’s recent comments are part of his wider rhetorical campaign that he conducted both as a candidate and as president: Paint a despairing picture of the nation in turmoil and then describe how he is marvelously fixing the issue. But the litany of data showing low labor market participation, poor job quality, and persistent employment discrimination prove the Trump administration has done very little to change the deep-rooted racial employment disparities that have been ravaging Black Americans for decades.