CLEVELAND — Unemployed for two years and growing increasingly frustrated, Charet Thomas thinks that neither Congress nor the White House is looking out for her or others who compose the nation's staggeringly high 15.9 percent African-American jobless rate.
"I think people getting off unemployment and getting jobs are middle-class people," said Thomas, who was laid off from her job at a nonprofit agency. "The African-Americans, we're on the back burner. I truly believe that."
With her resume in hand and her best clothing on, Thomas waited patiently in line with thousands of other unemployed or underemployed people here Monday at a jobs fair and town hall meeting sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus.
The Cleveland event launched a monthlong, five-city jobs fair-town hall tour by the caucus that's as much a message to congressional leaders and President Barack Obama as it is a vehicle to help unemployed African-Americans find work. More than 4,000 people attended the fair, where 100 employers had 2,500 jobs to fill.
"We didn't want to just sit around and complain. We decided to do something about it," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., the chairman of the black caucus said, of his group's first hands-on employment effort. "This will send a message to Washington that this is a crisis that can be ignored no longer. If the images of what's going on here reach Washington . . . it would take a very mean-spirited conscience, or no conscience at all, to allow people to ignore this."
The recession has been especially hard on African-American households. Not only is the seasonally adjusted jobless rate among African-Americans much higher than the nation's overall rate — 15.9 percent, compared with 9.1 percent — but the gap between black household wealth and that of white households is widening.
A report last month by the Pew Research Center found that the median wealth of black families, assets minus debts, was just $5,677, while the typical white family had a net worth of $113,149, the greatest disparity between the groups since the government began keeping such records nearly a quarter-century ago.
Several Congressional Black Caucus members want the White House and Congress to develop programs specifically targeted at lowering African-American unemployment. The more than 40 bills the caucus has introduced aimed at addressing African-American unemployment have gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The Obama administration also has done little targeted specifically at easing the plight of African-Americans, instead saying that the way to do that is to improve the economy overall. Obama repeatedly has quoted the saying "a rising tide lifts all boats."
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, "The president was very clear today . . . about the number of things that Congress can do to spur further job creation, including putting more money in people's pockets through a payroll tax cut that would put $1,000 in the paycheck of every . . . typical American family in every community."
Black caucus members are gentle in their criticism of Obama, however, because they don't want to clash publicly with a president whom they generally support.
"I think and believe that the president and the White House do want to make these things better," said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who hosted Monday's events. "I think that the way they go about it is different than the way we go about it."
Some African-American thinkers and pundits have taken a more pointed approach, giving rise to a split over how harsh black commentators should be in criticizing the nation's first African-American president.
PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton University Professor Cornel West, who coincidentally are conducting a 15-city poverty tour at the same time as the Congressional Black Caucus' job fairs, have been highly critical of Obama's handling of issues that affect African-Americans and the poor.
West, in an interview last month with NPR's Michel Martin, called Obama "a black mascot of Wall Street's oligarchs." Speaking on CNN on Monday, Smiley said last week's deal to raise the debt ceiling and cut federal spending "was really a declaration of war on the poor. The Congress, the president, respectfully, declared war on the poor."
Radio personality Tom Joyner, an Obama supporter, has chastised West and Smiley in blog posts for their remarks.
Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania history professor and former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, called West's and Smiley's criticisms "valid" but added that "basically it's seen as undermining an already weakened Obama."
"African-Americans want Obama to succeed and they want him re-elected," Berry said in an email exchange with McClatchy. "But the unemployment numbers upset and frustrate everyone. People wonder if he's just not tough enough for the job or just what the problem is. But African-Americans don't want him to fail."
Some political analysts say that Obama, who received 96 percent of the African-American vote in 2008, may see a less enthusiastic black electorate in 2012 if the unemployment picture doesn't improve.
"It's not like there's a (political) alternative; you either vote for Obama or don't vote," said David Bositis, a senior research associate for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "There are some unemployed people out there who are just discouraged. It's certainly something that he (Obama) has to think about."
Lawrence Jones and his wife, Kimberly Bass-Jones, aren't down on Obama despite Lawrence being unable to find a steady job for two years. They waited in the jobs fair line appreciative that the Congressional Black Caucus had organized the event and hopeful that Washington will do more to address African-American unemployment.
At the same time, Jones said he wasn't holding his breath.
"In today's political environment, how can they say they're helping out minorities? I don't think that would go over well at all," said Jones, who's 38.
"President Obama, he's doing a good job, but he seems to take the political temperature before acting. I wish he'd just go ahead and do what he believes in."
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