Black People Are Like Canaries In A Coal Mine

On Monday, April 8, President Barack Obama will be visiting the University of Hartford. The buzz around campus since the email went out announcing that POTUS will be coming to our little campus has been electric. As I start typing this blog post, hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have been standing in line for hours in front of the student center to get one of the highly coveted tickets to hear him speak.

Although I like President Obama, I'm not a fan of how he marginalizes the impact of white supremacy in contemporary American society or his preference for colorblind solutions to socioeconomic inequalities that are deeply rooted in longstanding racial and economic hierarchies. His pending visit to campus made me think about a book I read about 10 years ago by Critical Race Theory scholars, Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy.

In their very excellent book, Guinier and Torres, cogently and forcefully argued that race is like the canary in the coal mine.

If you are not familiar with the phrase, "canary in a coal mine" is often used to refer to a person or a thing whose ruin or suffering is an early warning sign that danger is around the corner.

Historically, coal mining is one of the most dangerous occupations anywhere in the world. For minors working underground, the potential for death from suffocation, gas poisoning, roof collapse and gas explosions, is very real.

In order to prevent a disaster, coal miners need an early warning system to let them know if conditions are unsafe. Before the widespread use of gas detection technology, caged canaries were used by coal miners because of their very sensitive respiratory systems. Their distress or death usually signaled that dangerous levels of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, methane, or carbon dioxide were building up in the mine.

A dangerous buildup of these toxins would kill the canaries long before the miners would be affected. As long as the bird kept singing, the miners were led to believe that everything was fine.

Guinier and Torres persuasively argue in their book, "Those who are racially marginalized are like the miner's canary: their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all. It is easy enough to think that when we sacrifice this canary, the only harm is to communities of color. Yet others ignore problems that converge around racial minorities at their own peril, for these problems are symptoms warning us that we are all at risk."

Black people are America's canary in the coal mine, with the exception of Native Americans, it's most marginalized racial group. Due to centuries of racial bias and structural inequalities, our collective respiratory system leaves us particularly vulnerable. Unfortunately, the nation does not fully recognize black people's vulnerability nor prioritize the interests and needs of black America, not even the nation's first black President.

Indeed, this President is making some decisions that will do more harm than good when it comes to the interests and needs of black people.

According to media reports, the President's budget proposal that he plans to unveil next week will include cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Politico reports: "The most controversial element of Obama's proposal is the inclusion of "chained CPI," the adjustment that would over time reduce cost-of-living increases to Social Security and other federal benefit programs – effectively, a cut to Social Security benefits by tying them to inflation."

Obama is the first Democratic President to propose cutting his party's signature New Deal Program, Social Security. This will be especially disastrous for blacks who are recipients of Social Security.

According to a factsheet produced by the Social Security Administration (SSA), in 2011, the average annual Social Security income received by black men 65 years and older was $13,458 and for women it was $12,173.

Although blacks have a lower life expectancy than other races at age 65, SSA suggests that blacks tend to benefit more from Social Security than other racial or ethnic groups. One reason for this is because low-wage earners tend to receive a greater return on their investment in the program than do higher-wage earners. The yearly median earnings of black workers (about $35,000) are significantly lower than the yearly median earnings of all other workers (about $42,000).

SSA's factsheet also makes the point that blacks depend on social security benefits more than any other racial or ethnic group. In 2011, among blacks, 23 percent of elderly married couples and 56 percent of unmarried elderly persons depended on a check from the Social Security Administration for 90 percent or more of their income. Moreover, in 2011, although blacks only made up 12.6 percent of the nation's population, they were 19 percent of disabled workers receiving benefits.

The President's decision to switch to the chain CPI is not a minor issue for black people who depend on their Social Security checks for survival. My mother is one of those people. According to Obama's own SSA, "African Americans receiving benefits are helped by Social Security's cost-of-living protection which guarantees a benefit that is annually adjusted for inflation." His proposal will make black recipients less secure.

Black people, in particular, should be outraged by what the President is proposing to do to Social Security (and Medicare) in an effort to win bipartisan support in Congress. Black people should also be unwilling to submerge their interests and needs and political voice because the first black President is wedded to the idea that America is a post-racial society and that people need to ignore their differences and simply find common ground and everything will be okay.

It might also be easy to believe that although cuts to Social Security may harm blacks more than other racial and ethnic groups, the long-term benefits that may come from reducing the deficit and debt far outweigh any costs to black retirees and blacks that depend on disability insurance.

This is myopic thinking. Just like the canaries that alert miners to a dangerous situation, the problems black American face are not simply their problems, they are America's problems.


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