While the country celebrates the first black president, African-Americans are facing critical challenges from high unemployment, home foreclosures and a record number of black men in prison.

Despite these disparities and the fact that African-Americans have been hit hardest by the current economic meltdown, a recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that 59 percent of African-Americans believe the country has made real progress in race relations, a 30 percent jump from last year.

The National Urban League, in its report “The State of Black America 2009,” acknowledges the feeling of hope the Obama administration brings, but demands the president examine the sobering issues facing African-Americans.

ESSENCE.com asked president and CEO of the Urban League Marc H. Morial whether or not the sentiments reflected in the poll mirror the national Black perspective.

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ESSENCE.com: With all of these factors that are challenging the African-American community today, do you really believe most of us feel like race relations between blacks and whites have improved?
Marc H. MORIAL: I know that a poll is a snapshot of time, and while it’s important to keep the proper context, this is a positive thing. Yes, people are beginning to have a healthier view of race relations. But we must keep in mind the underlying conditions that people are currently living in. There are still very significant disparities between blacks and whites in America. The unemployment rate in the current recession is but one example.

ESSENCE.com: Do you believe the election of the first African-American president had anything to do with the change in black attitude toward the future of the U.S.?
MORIAL: This is clearly a visible example of the effect of President Obama’s election. It has created hope, optimism and a better way of thinking about the issue of race. I just hope that it’s sustainable. If it’s sustainable, it means we can work towards addressing and alleviating some of those underlying conditions. We should hope that it maintains and translates into positive action to try to close some of the difficult challenges like the economic gap and the housing problem.

ESSENCE.com: Does it surprise you that white people had an equally positive outlook on race relations?
MORIAL: Not in light of Obama. He got more white votes than Kerry or Gore. He also got a higher black turnout than at any other time in American history. So he has demonstrated this unique important ability at the national level to appeal to a broad cross-section of people. People place a considerable amount of trust and optimism in his leadership.

ESSENCE.com: How have organizations like the National Urban League reinforced this new attitude about race?
MORIAL: I really believe a great deal has to do with President Obama. To have that kind of effect and impact means that people are willing to move forward and they believe and hope that things are getting better. Our mission at the National Urban League is to help children and adults, young and old, achieve economic parity, through programs and public policy. Those that have worked in the trenches for many years to improve relations and conditions deserve some credit, but the issue for us is about sustainability and transferability. We want to see this epidemic of high school dropouts improve. We want to see this disparity that exists in economics reduced. These issues are so critical and important. My hope is that this new change in attitude will ultimately lead to that.