Activists call on Obama to use ‘bully pulpit’ for Black economic progress

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WASHINGTON (NNPA)—As 2009 ended with Black unemployment rates at 15.6 percent—more than twice the rate of a decade ago, a dramatic five points more than a year ago, and twice the White unemployment rate—civil rights leaders are calling on President Obama to pointedly use his “bully pulpit” on behalf of African-Americans.

In NNPA interviews, leaders expressed clearly their readiness to take action for economic progress in the trenches.

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JESSE JACKSON, AL SHARPTON, DOROTHY HEIGHT

“Banks got billions of dollars of interest-free money. When we watered the leaves, the water did not come down to the roots,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson, who will host his annual Wall Street Project Economic Summit Jan. 13-15 at the New York Sheraton Hotel. “At the roots we are losing with home foreclosures, church foreclosures, credit card scams and net loss in jobs. So poverty is rising and small business failures are rising because of the lack of access to capital. We now need to reconstruct the economy from bottom up.”

The Wall Street conference agenda at http://www.wallstreetproject.org is heavy with representatives from the Obama administration, including people from the departments of Commerce, Treasury, Small Business Administration, Agriculture and the FDIC.

Members of Congress, as well as other civil rights leaders, including the National Urban League’s Marc Morial and NNPA’s Danny Bakewell, will be in attendance to discuss issues of economic reciprocity, Jackson said. “This will be our Black business community discussing where did the stimulus money go and who got it.”

A point of action, he says, will be the insistence that the Department of Justice enforce civil rights laws such as Title 6, created for the purpose of fair contracting and racial inclusion.

Banks got billions “without honoring fair housing laws, fair lending laws and the community re-investment act. They got stimulus money and did not have to honor the EEOC,” Jackson said. “The result is that money came down by the billions in virtually exclusionary patterns.”

Of course, employment discrimination and joblessness among Blacks are not new on the civil rights agenda. It’s just that with the disastrous economy and a newly elected Black president, Black leaders thought there would be a greater level of sensitivity and specificity from the White House to deal with the problem in the Black community.

But, when President Obama said last spring that a “rising tide lifts all boats,” dissatisfaction grew swiftly and appears to be reaching a tipping point as 2010 begins—even by some who have been slow to criticize the Obama administration.

“The economic condition of Black people is of grave concern,” said Rev. Al Sharpton. “There are those that are saying that we’ve been seeing about Main Street. I’m saying Blacks are not even on Main Street. We’re in our own part of town. And if Main Street hasn’t gotten any bailout, then we haven’t even gotten the rumor.”

Regardless of the strategy, it will have to include a specific focus on African-Americans. Sharpton agrees.

“We must specifically address the inequality based on race—even in the lower and middle class,” he said. “You’ve got to remember that the fact of the matter is that if you raised everything as is, it would still be double Black unemployment and we would still have double the problems even though we would be better than we were, we would still be unequal. We’re looking for equality. We’re not looking for a better form of oppression.”

Half the battle will be keeping the crucial issues of health care and Black economic equality in the public’s eye said Dr. Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women.

“We have to keep our issues out in a forum,” said Height. She adds that activists must also remember that Obama was inaugurated in the midst of the economic crisis.

“We have to look at the complexity in the world that he inherited and where he is,” she said. “The president didn’t make the unemployment, but he’s doing his best to fix it.”

(Hazel Trice Edney is editor and chief of the NNPA.)

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