In his January 2014 State of the Union Address and thereafter, President Barack Obama has repeatedly mentioned apprenticeships and vocational education when discussing the jobs crisis. One might be critical as to why the nation’s first black president would advocate for a policy that has been historically exclusive and harmful to African Americans. In his autobiography, Malcolm X notes, when telling his middle school English teacher of his aspirations to be a lawyer, the teacher advised him to instead become a carpenter. To Malcolm, this was in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly affirming advice he gave to less-promising white students. Malcolm X’s case was not an aberration, but reflected a general trend of structural and systemic discrimination that operated through vocational education programs (where African Americans were tracked into lower-paying jobs) and apprenticeships. This history involved reifying and reinforcing class divisions along racial lines. Apprenticeships can be problematic in that often they are awarded to relatives or friends who share the same racial background as the master technician. As many have noted, white social networks often function to exclude African Americans from potential jobs.
The Post-Racial President and the Push for Apprenticeships