Dorothy Height of the National Congress of Negro Women, Rev. Al
Sharpton of the National Action Network, Ben Jealous of the NAACP,
and Marc Morial of the National Urban League, wrote President Barack
Obama asking for a meeting about the state of Black employment and
with the ensuing invitation, all but Height went to the White House
in a snow storm for a one hour meeting. The clearest version of
what happened was stated by Marc Morial: “We worked very hard to
share with him ideas around the need for targeted relief – and that
means urban communities, to areas of high employment” so, as Ben
Jealous said, the focus of the talk was more on place than race.
consensus feeling was that President Obama “got it” but that he
was also focused on passing a jobs bill he thought would address
some of the issues. Sharpton explained the purpose of the meeting
as “getting a commitment from the administration to make sure that
all of these things were factored in,” as they went to meet with
Republicans and Democrats about the jobs legislation. He admitted
that the President “was not going to engage in any race-based programs”
but felt that some of the “structural inequalities” could be corrected.
reminded me of his comment to April Ryan, White House Reporter for
the American Urban Radio Network that, by law, he couldn’t pass
laws “that say I’m just helping black folks.” I don’t believe
that is true, or he couldn’t pass laws for Gays or Native Americans,
or write Executive Orders for Asians and Pacific Islanders. So,
Sharpton reported they “didn’t ask for a race-based program, but
wanted to make sure that everyone was involved” in the debate over
what does that mean in legislative terms? First, I think that the
president does have a responsibility to say to the Congress that
he wants special coverage in the jobs bill for communities that
have been hit the hardest. Presidents have done this for years.
But second, I think he could do much more. In January of 1998,
Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. played a major role in inducing Bill Clinton
to propose a “New Markets Initiative,” aimed at underserved areas,
feeling that his Race Initiative lacked this vital dimension.
did two things. He first made a poverty tour throughout the country
to places like Hazard, KY, the Mississippi Delta, E. St. Louis,
Watts (LA), Pine Ridge Reservation, and South Phoenix, AR. He then
drew up legislation and succeeded in getting Dennis Hastert, Republican
Speaker of the House to support it. The “New Markets Initiative”
finally passed on December 14, 2000 and it consisted of a $15 million
Tax Credit for companies investing in low and moderate income areas;
$180 Million for a Venture Capital fund to provide seed money for
companies to invest in underserved areas; strengthened and expanded
Empowerment Zones; identified 40 Renewal Communities for revitalization
-- HUD would design the packages of assistance; and the expansion
of a Low-Income Housing tax credit. This modest program should
be adopted and vastly expanded.
Clinton had a series of meeting with business leaders to use the
$180 billion in Venture capital funds to start new businesses in
the underserved areas. Understanding that the government could
only go so far, he wanted to incentivize private firms to invest
in these areas. But the Bush administration neglected the program
and changed the incentives of businesses with massive tax cuts that
led investment to much larger projects overseas.
now, the metro area anchored by Detroit has the highest unemployment
rate in the country at 15.4% according to Department of Labor.
But the City, which had an official unemployment rate of 31% in
December 2009, has an actual rate of 50% as analyzed by the Detroit
News. So, this 82% Black City, where one out of two people are
unemployed, should be targeted. Why could Obama, for example, not
lean on the Congress to pass legislation where communities at 20%
(or 200%) of the official national poverty rate (10%) or more should
receive a proportionate share of the $18 billion package?
current Senate job bill is too anemic to do much about employment
and measures proposed by the Congressional Black Caucus such as
money for summer jobs, affordable housing and public service jobs
where minorities are represented are not included. So, Civil Rights
leaders are right to try to get the attention of the President and
the Congress, but we may all have to get involved to get this done
Board member, Dr. Ron Walters, is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar,
Director of the African American Leadership Center and Professor
of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College
Park. His latest book is: The Price of Racial Reconciliation (The Politics of Race and Ethnicity) (University
of Michigan Press). Click here to
contact Dr. Walters.