In March, the National Urban League released its annual The State of Black America 2009 report. Entitled “Message to the President” and featuring essays from figures including Martin Luther King III and Congressman Chakah Fattah, the report details how in these tough economic times, African-Americans are hurting the worst.
With African-Americans behind in every area from employment to housing, the organization recommends that President Obama pursue policy that specifically targets the Black community. ESSENCE.com talked to National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial about his suggestions for Obama, the President’s reluctance to address race directly, and how some reports got the Urban League’s message to him all wrong.
ESSENCE.COM: The Obama administration says that money from the stimulus will flow mostly into cities, thereby improving conditions for African-Americans because so many of us live in urban areas. Does that go far enough?
MARC MORIAL: I say these are steps in the right direction. What the Urban League has urged is that a monitoring system be put in place to ensure that states and cities do with the money what the President expects them to do. There is money there to train people for jobs in the green economy. We have urged the Secretary of Labor to make a special effort to ensure that training opportunities are specifically provided for disadvantaged workers, workers who are predominately African-American and Latino.
ESSENCE.COM: At his last White House press conference, a reporter asked President Obama if the issue of race had come up in his policy discussions. He said that he’s been focused on the economy, which affects all Americans. What did you think of his response?
MORIAL: I think responses in press conferences are important, but actions are what are really important. The President and his team have been very open to our suggestions. A number of things that we suggested for the stimulus did get included. We pushed for more specific language around disadvantaged workers and urban communities. I’m not going to say that the President was opposed to that, but there were people in Congress who were not favorable toward that sort of specific language.
ESSENCE.COM: It was also around this time last year that Obama gave his speech on race in Philadelphia, but since then he hasn’t said much about issues pertaining to race. Why do you think that is?
MORIAL: I’m going to give the President some room to confront this on an ongoing basis. We have to understand that he’s been in office not yet 90 days. He’s inherited a tremendous crisis. I’m prepared to give him some time to engage in all of the important issues that he’s got to deal with, and race is one of them. I’m not going to say he should be doing more at this point.
ESSENCE.COM: It’s funny you say that, because when the report came out, so many headlines had that exact angle—that the Urban League says he’s not doing enough for Black people, and not mentioning race enough.
MORIAL: The mainstream media is incredibly superficial about how they deal with this. We put “A Message to the President” together before the election. The report would have had the exact same title no matter who won. So, yes, we have to push hard for the President to address the problems of our community. But we’ve got to utilize the opportunities held in the stimulus. In the federal sector, a lot of resources are given out on a discretionary basis. You’ve got to put proposals together to pursue the money. What we’ve done as an organization is engage aggressively and assertively. We’re saying, “Look Mr. President, we like the steps you’ve taken. But here are some recommendations to make the promises of your campaign a reality.”