Tonight, Obama needs to address the vanishing black middle class

When I was in high school, there were few things that caused panic and anxiety more than my fear of getting into college. I’d write lists of my dream schools, sort through tons of “best of guides,” and endlessly recite SAT words at a neurotic pace until one day, a friend asked what I feared so much. After revealing a litany of teenage prep-schooler woes, he sheepishly replied: “I don’t know why you’re worried. You’re black. You’ll get into any college you want.” I naively protested that I would get into college solely because of my merits, not my race, and walked away.

In theory, I’d like to think I was right—that quests for “diversity” or quotas didn’t factor into my college admission or professional development. But the more realistic answer is it probably did. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In the middle of this national conversation about inequality and poverty, we must admit to one thing if we expect to narrow wealth and income divides: Targeted public policies designed to help African Americans work. And we need more of them.

There’s been much debate about what, exactly, is needed to help the black community, a group that has seen much of its housing stock and wealth evaporate in the aftermath of the recession. Some community leaders, including PBS Host Tavis Smiley, scholar Cornel West, congresswoman Maxine Waters, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have urged the president to take a more targeted approach to public policies for black Americans. Obama, however, has maintained that a more universal policy approach will ultimately be more effective: “The most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again,” he said early in his first term. “I think it’s a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together.”

In 2012, the president was asked about whether he planned to craft policy specifically for black businesses. “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America,” he responded. “…I’ll put my track record up against anybody in terms of us putting in place broad-based programs that ultimately had a huge benefit for African American businesses.”

In a perfect America, the president would be right: He shouldn’t have to pay more attention to certain groups. But the United States isn’t a utopia. So if the president’s goal is ensuring a more equal society and a “more perfect union,” helping correct many of these historic and systematic inequities is crucial. He doesn’t have to create a specific “black agenda,” but policies that respond to the distinct plight of this group and other marginalized groups are critical.

So as the president begins to craft his agenda for this week’s State of the Union Address, I implore him to not just to talk about economic inequality that “mainstream” America is experiencing, but to school his audience of lawmakers on the economic and social inequalities that African Americans and other people of color are disproportionately facing.

It’s not an easy sell to most Americans—and especially African Americans. They can be hesitant to advocate for targeted policies in today’s politically contentious climate where race and politics all too often nastily intersect (see the infamous “food stamp president” remarks).

But minorities—African Americans in particular—need to get over that hesitance. Blacks lag behind white America in nearly all measures that enable upward mobility. They have less wealth, fewer degrees, more debt, and are more likely to be incarcerated. But here’s the kicker: life for these marginalized groups has improved in the last 50 years largely due to the work of grassroots advocates and the targeted policies for which they pushed.

Whether you want to call it “playing the race card” or not, it’s because of the Voting Rights Act that poll taxes and literacy tests were eliminated, enabling millions to have their political voices heard. It was affirmative action that helped create a black middle class (along with opening doors to 6 million white women), and the Fair Housing Act that eased discriminatory housing practices.

Sure, sometimes “market forces” or public outrage can correct racial inequalities (see the recent Saturday Night Live hiring of a black woman), but those tend to be exceptions.

Don’t misunderstand me—a more universal approach to public policy should always be the goal. But it only works in a society where equality is a reality in principle and in practice. That’s not true in America. One can look at any of the reports highlighting racial disparities in the country and see that black, white, and Latinos have vastly different experiences of America. Just last year the National Urban League said that African Americans have an “Equality Index” of 71.7%, meaning they enjoy less than three-fourths of the economic privilege and social “well-being” as whites. Hispanics, according to this measure, are at 75.4%.

Of course, the president’s universal approach works in some situations—for example, the Affordable Care Act, the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. These actions have certainly impacted the black community. But more can be done from a second-term president during these dire times for the group that is his most loyal constituency.

The tides may be turning. In 2012, the president created the “White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans,” and during a major speech on inequality, Obama hinted that he might be game for more targeted policy approaches to racial and ethnic disparities.

He didn’t specify what those initiatives could be this past December. But in early January 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arnie Duncan announced new race-based guidelines on school discipline, which they say disproportionately impacts “students of color and with disabilities.” That’s another step in the right direction.

I understand the hesitancy to support targets directed at certain groups. In the shadow of Ronald Reagan and the ubiquitous “welfare queen,” I, too, once wanted to prove that I could do it on my own—that I wasn’t part of that 47% that wanted “free stuff.” I wanted to believe that making it was about the individual. But that’s not how America works. In the Post-War era, millions of white families were given a shot at the middle class because of federally created policies. The government aided all of those bootstrapping youngsters by creating the Federal Housing Administration loan program and the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (also known as the GI bill). Both cultivated a vibrant middle class that thrived in the years following World War II and early into the twentieth century, often at the expense of African Americans. The same targeted approach to public policy today can be used to uplift millions of struggling black Americans.

The United States government can’t be the ultimate savior of the black community. But the government has and should continue to play an active role in creating a better America for a group with distinct set of challenges and strengths. The president of all people seems to understand that we do not live in a post-racial society, yet he’s governing as if he’s leading a post-racial country.

A version of this post originally appeared on New America’s blog, The Weekly Wonk. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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