Bernie is Putting Black Youth Unemployment Front and Center

Bernie is Putting Black Youth Unemployment Front and Center

A point of criticism regarding Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign is that as an old white man from the whitest state in the union, he’s not good at talking about racial issues in the United States. He’s more comfortable, the argument goes, focusing broadly on issues of economic inequality and unwieldy corporate influence.

The critique, however, doesn’t mesh well with reality. While Sanders may not be perfect on race—his closest advisers are on the older, male-er, and paler side and he has next to no name recognition among the black community—he’s proven a willingness to go beyond the obligatory liberal lip service.

In addition to calling for a complete reform of policing practices and saying that America as a country must apologize for slavery (how controversial, right?), Sanders is going a step further: He’s increasingly calling out the lack of discourse on and solutions for black unemployment.

“How do you discuss Ferguson and not know that, in that particular community, unemployment is off the charts?" the democratic socialist said in an extensive interview with The Nation. "How do you discuss Baltimore and not know that, in that particular community, unemployment is off the charts?"

Nationally the black unemployment rate is 9.5 percent, compared with 4.6 percent for whites. The unemployment disparity, however, is far more striking for youth. The unemployment rate for young African Americans is 21.4 percent—seven percentage points more than the national youth unemployment rate.

Early last month, Sanders introduced the Employ Young Americans Now Act (he previously introduced the same bill last year) in a neighborhood in Southeast Washington, D.C., that’s long struggled with high unemployment rates. The legislation calls for the creation of one million jobs for disadvantaged young people by sending $5.5 billion in funds to state and local job-training programs—much of which would be aimed at areas with persistent black unemployment. 

Still, Sanders has a long way to go to get any significant portion of the black vote in the Democratic primaries. A recent poll shows that 91 percent of non-white voters prefer frontrunner Hillary Clinton, while only 3 percent intend to vote for Sanders. “We’re reaching out, but it’s no secret that Bernie represents a state that is heavily Caucasian, and his decades of work on issues of importance to African Americans aren’t known amid the national conversation on race that is underway,” a Sanders adviser told The New York Times.

His polling numbers among minorities may increase as his name recognition and platform awareness increases. By placing black youth unemployment, along with a cadre of other policies, on the marquee of his campaign platform, Sanders is showing that he’s aware, he’s not oblivious, and he’s willing to make outreach to the black community a priority.

As Collier Meyerson notes for Fusion, though, Clinton is echoing Sanders. At a speech at a community college in South Carolina last month, she announced a plan to combat rampant youth unemployment by offering tax credits to businesses that bring on young apprentices. And advisers said she’ll unveil more concrete plans aimed at black youth unemployment this summer.

Clinton has embedded recognition among the country’s black voters, and as Clinton mirrors some of Sanders’s ideas, the Vermont senator will have his work cut out for him as he attempts to ensure his broader platform for addressing economic inequality remains distinct, and as he works for greater recognition and support among a broader swath of American voters. Homing in on black youth unemployment could be a good jumping-off point.