As we bask in the ascension of President Obama to his second-term, it’s easy to feel positive and giddy about the future of this country and black people’s possibilities in it.
Especially since a Mitt Romney victory would have meant a Tea Party takeover and four years of backlash for us even daring to use our vote to elect a president who shattered their notions of superiority.
But now, it’s time to get back to reality. And right now, the reality for black people in this country, when it comes to economic prosperity, is bleak.
Black unemployment is at 13.8 percent – nearly double that of whites. According to The Washington Post, a group of scholars who convened at Howard University recently basically said that the recovery is passing black people by; the black-white wealth disparity is 20 to 1 and fewer blacks own homes.
Some of the scholars said that targeted, large scale efforts, like public jobs programs, are needed to combat persistent black unemployment. Others said that institutional racism remains a problem for most black people when it comes to getting jobs.
Me, I think the problem is a lot more complicated than that. And unless we grasp what much of the real problem is – job-killing technological advances – then it’s bound to worsen in a big way.
The Associated Press just completed an investigation that was enlightening as much as it was depressing. What it found was that millions of middle-class jobs – think store sales clerks, meter readers and assembly line workers – are being replaced by technology.
Customers no longer have to deal with rude, sour-faced cashiers at supermarkets, because many stores now have kiosks where customers can scan their own items.
Trains can now run without conductors, and whole employment categories, like secretaries and receptionists, are disappearing.
If you order clothes and goods over the Internet, well, there goes a sales person’s job.
So what that means is that we’re now in a world in which it won’t be enough to be able-bodied, because computers are taking those jobs. And computers don’t need lunch breaks or union concessions.
They also don’t need to be told everything to do because they’ve been programmed to know what to do.
Even the scientists who are developing the technology are cringing at the thought that it is developing too fast for workers to keep up with, and that it could continue to lead to persistent, high unemployment.
I cringe too.
I cringe when I see black children growing up in households with no books and computers, and struggle to read children’s books at ages when they ought to be reading young adult fiction. I cringe when schools scrimp on teaching science and math and the critical thinking skills they will need to adapt as technology continues to change and make everything that they once knew obsolete.
And I especially cringe at all the misguided solutions – like charter schools and voucher schools run by people who care more about profiting from the desperation of poor, black parents – being directed toward this problem.
But even with all the uncertainty, there’s hope.
Besides demanding an education that prepares our children for a realistic future – few of them are going to be Beyonces and LeBrons – we have to insist on access to lifelong education that helps us all to keep up with a market being reshaped by technology.
A 2011 study by the McKinsey Global Institute, in fact, claims there will be a demand for workers with a post-high school education, and that employers are having trouble filling jobs that require technical skills.
According to Forbes, such jobs include information security analysts, web developers, mechanical engineers and online ad managers, as well as human resources and labor relations managers.
A large-scale public jobs program might help many black unemployed regain the footing to start over. But I also believe that more efforts should be targeted toward preparing both black adults and youths to compete for jobs in a world that will need fewer workers who only know how to follow orders, and more who can think and adapt.
Because there’s no falling back on working at McDonald’s now – and if things keep going the way they’re going, pretty soon robots will be taking people’s orders.
And there’s not a whole lot that the president can do about that.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or visit her webpage and blog, “Tonyaa’s Take,” at www.tonyaajweathersbee.com.