President Trump says he has a fix to the deep racial divide in America, blatantly exposed in the clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va.
“I think if we continue to create jobs at levels that I’m creating jobs, I think that’s going to have a tremendously positive impact on race relations. I do. I do,” he said in Phoenix on Aug. 22, adding that he thinks bigger paychecks will also help improve race relations.
Trump has repeated this belief in the wake of the Charlottesville violence that left a woman dead.
The idea here seems to be that closing some of the economic inequities among America’s races will ease racial unrest. But that simple of a solution may be wishful thinking.
“I don’t think there’s any economic fix to improving race relations. That’s putting too much of a burden on economics,” says Gerald Jaynes, a professor of economics and African-American studies at Yale University.
We dove into exactly how big those gaps are (Answer: In some cases, they’re huge) and assessed the persistent argument over how tightly linked economics and racism really are.
Where things stand now
The unemployment rate for black Americans has been roughly double the unemployment rate for white Americans for a very long time.
To Trump, it’s not just about the quantity of jobs, but also the quality. He has said that better wages can improve race relations in America.
There is a yawning racial wage gap in the country among major racial and ethnic groups, with whites and Asians earning far more than their black and Hispanic counterparts.
And while whites and Asians tend to have higher levels of education than blacks and Hispanics, that doesn’t completely explain these disparities. According to 2014 data from the Labor Department, whites and Asians tended to earn more than Hispanics and blacks across much of the education spectrum.
And all this inequality in wages, both now and stretching far back into the past, helps create one of the most gaping racial divides of all: the wealth divide. The median wealth for a white two-parent household with children was $161,300 as of 2013 — 8.5 times as big as that of the median Hispanic household and 10 times as big as that of the median black household, as the left-leaning think tank Demos reported earlier this year.
We’ve heard this debate before
What is also striking about Trump’s jobs-and-wages proposal is that it touches on this fundamental question that popped up in the 2016 Democratic primary: To what degree is racial tension, at its root, an economic problem?
Hillary Clinton believed that it’s dangerous to claim that racism is all about economic inequality.
“This [Black Lives Matter movement] is fueled in large measure by young people, and it is a particular development in the civil rights movement that deserves our support,” Clinton said during her Democratic primary campaign (as quoted by CNN). “By that I mean, there are some who say, ‘Well, racism is a result of economic inequality.’ I don’t believe that.”
This was usually taken as a barb at her challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who often pivoted on questions about race to the topic of economic inequality.
The interconnection of race and economics played out in the Trump campaign, too. Trump’s economic message of trying to create manufacturing jobs and crack down on illegal immigration resonated more with white people than with other demographic groups.
Indeed, Jaynes says, if jobs and wages are linked to racial tension, it may have more to do with white people.
“There’s been a deterioration for everyone. But in a sense, that deterioration is more visible to whites because they were in a much better position at the start,” he says.
If that is true, white people feeling that kind of deterioration in their own lives might be particularly won over by Trumpian ideas, like the notion that immigrants are taking American jobs or that affirmative action and “political correctness” give some groups too much special treatment.
Creating jobs isn’t simple
On a basic level, Jaynes notes, jobs will provide a foundation for improving race relations, but they won’t be enough.
“If you don’t have jobs, people are never going to be happy. That’s pretty basic,” he said. “A thriving economy producing high-paying jobs for working people is a necessary condition, but it won’t be sufficient for great improvements in race relations.”
Trump brags about having created more than 1 million jobs during his presidency. And it’s true that, as the president says, more than 1 million jobs have been created during his presidency.
But that is not an unusual pace of job creation — thus far, U.S. employers have added an average of 179,000 jobs per month during the Trump presidency, roughly equal to 2016’s pace (187,000). In fact, 2016 and 2017 thus far are down from the preceding years.
In other words, this level of job growth has existed for years in America, and it doesn’t appear to have done much — at least, not directly or immediately — to close America’s deep economic racial divides.
In any event, presidents have little direct control over the economy. They can, however, push policies that buoy job creation — President Barack Obama’s financial crisis-era stimulus package is an extreme example of this.
Trump has talked about a massive infrastructure plan, but when he last made a major push for it, it was frustratingly vague. He champions manufacturing, but most of that industry’s lost jobs are never coming back. He is pushing tax cuts, but it’s not at all certain that would create jobs.
Improving American race relations by creating jobs may be an impossible dream. But even creating those jobs first could be challenging enough