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Wickham: Recession a black-and-white issue

Barack Obama should have had a better answer to the question Ann Compton asked during his White House press conference.

The query from Compton, an ABC News correspondent, came late during the nationally televised give-and-take between the president and the White House press corps – a session dominated by talk of the nation’s economic crisis.

“Could I ask you about race?” she began, raising an issue that still makes a lot of Americans uncomfortable. “Yours is a rather historic presidency, and I’m just wondering whether, in any of the policy debates that you’ve had within the White House, the issue of race has come up,” she asked the nation’s first black president.

“I think that the last 64 days has been dominated by me trying to figure how we’re going to fix the economy. And that affects black, brown and white,” Obama responded, sounding every bit like the first president of America’s post-racial era.

And then, to put a fine point on his answer, Obama acknowledged the “justifiable pride” many people felt when he was inaugurated.

But now, he said, the American people are judging him “exactly the way I should be judged, and that is, ‘Are we taking steps to improve liquidity in the financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to reopen, keep America safe?’ And that’s what I’ve been spending my time thinking about.”

That sounds a lot like the kind of “rising tide lifts all boats” answer that many of the white men who preceded him in the Oval Office used to give when asked whether the issue of race came up in any of their policy debates.

The problem with such a generic answer then – and now – is there is no one-size-fits-all fix for this nation’s problems – especially the current economic crisis.

Last month, overall unemployment among whites rose to 7.3 percent. Black unemployment jumped to 13.4 percent. Joblessness among white teenagers (ages 16-19) was 19.1 percent, while 38.8 percent of black teens were out of work.

In answering Compton’s question, did Obama really mean to say that these stark differences haven’t been raised in White House discussions about how to get Americans off the unemployment rolls?

Is it possible that the issue of race – or, more accurately, this nation’s racial inequalities – never came up when the president talked to his economic advisers about poverty?

Last year, the Census Bureau reported that the median income of blacks ($33,916 in 2007) was significantly lower than that of whites ($54,920).

Has the Obama team been talking about what to do about pulling families out of poverty without acknowledging how much more difficult it is going to be to lift black families out of that bog?

How can the Obama administration solve the nation’s housing crisis if it doesn’t understand – and hasn’t discussed during policy debates – the predatory lending practices that targeted blacks to a far greater degree than any other group in this country?

A 2000 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that homeowners in high-income black areas were twice as likely as homeowners in low-income white areas to have subprime loans.

This month, the NAACP sued subsidiaries of two major banks that it accused of steering borrowers “unfairly into costly subprime mortgages,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

I know that Obama is the president of all Americans, not just the president of black America. But black folks are Americans, too.

And when the problems that afflict this nation hit them harder than any other group, they should be discussed in a White House commanded by this nation’s first black president.

DeWayne Wickham is a Maryland-based columnist who writes for USA TODAY. E-mail: DeWayneWickham@aol.com

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