by Pharoh Martin
For New Pittsburgh Courier
WASHINGTON (NNPA)—Civil rights leaders met with President Barack Obama last week to discuss the president’s jobs strategy and to voice their concerns about the disproportionate effect of the jobs crisis on the African-American community.
Even while the federal government was officially shut down due to the severe snowstorm that was incapacitating the Washington, D.C. area, the president still welcomed Rev. Al Sharpton, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and National Urban League President Marc Morial into the Oval Office for their first formal meeting since Obama became the country’s first Black president.
“The assumption is that because the president is African-American he should be up for representing African-American interests,” Sharpton said. “That’s like saying because you’re from the labor union you should represent labor interests.”
Described as a “very candid and open” dialogue, the leaders met for more than an hour exploring a framework for reducing the excessive job loss numbers in the nation’s inner-cities, according to a telephone conference with reporters after the meeting.
“Our meeting with the president was a positive conversation,” Morial said. “We support very strongly the president’s 2010 focus on jobs and job creation. We certainly share with him the great challenges that our communities are facing as the result of the jobs crisis and its high levels of long-term unemployment. And while, no doubt, the great recession has affected all Americans it has disproportionately African-Americans, Latinos and those living in urban communities.”
Because of the weather, iconic civil rights and women’s right stalwart Dorothy Height, who was also invited, was not able to attend the meeting. The 97-year-old chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women was, until that point, also fully involved with the deliberations.
The particular focus on African-American employment by the president and civil rights leaders came about because the Black jobless numbers are teetering near rates that rival Great Depression levels. While the country’s unemployment rate fell below the double-digit highs it posted at the end of 2009 in January to 9.7 percent, the jobless rate for Blacks continued to rise to a dizzying 16.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
At this time last year, when President Obama first took over an already severely economically recessed country, the Black unemployment rate was at a still extreme yet more modest 12.8 percent.
“We will not rest until the unemployment rate comes down to acceptable levels. That means way down in the four and five percent range,” said Morial, who’s aiming for a target rate never seen by African-Americans.
For the past six months, the National Urban League has been advancing a six-point jobs plan. In November, the NUL chief executive sent a letter to the Obama administration and congressional leaders that outlined his organization’s recommendations to address the jobs issue, which included proposals such as direct funding to lower than federal-level municipalities, schools and nonprofit community-based organizations to hire staff for critical community services, expansion of the Small Business Administration’s Community Express Loan Program and the Youth Summer Jobs Program, among other provisions.
“We’re not saying that you should do this or that you should take action with this specifically but we are saying, “Here are some ideas,” Morial said, calling his organization’s jobs plan a “laundry list” of provisions put together by leading economists.
The group said that after courting Obama as an ally on their war on jobs loss they want to share the same concerns with an embattled Congress that is currently trying to hash out job creation legislation. Mirroring health care, a jobs bill narrowly passed the House along party lines in December but the Senate is facing a growingly tougher task.
“We are looking for a way to target the frustration, particularly at the Republicans in the Senate,” Jealous said.
The NAACP leader said that he is growing weary of Republicans continued use of obstructionist tactics to railroad Obama’s domestic agenda. He is also frustrated with the passive Democrats, who, despite enjoying unprecedented leverage as the party in power in both the legislative and executive branches—are allowing legislation to be dragged along.
He said that the Senate bill should favor the House bill, which looks to use leftover bank bailout money to aid states, extend unemployment benefits, invest on infrastructure and expand tax credits for families with children.
Since a Senate jobs bill is still being debated, Morial said that he will push for the inclusion of a number of provisions from his jobs plan.
“We believe that any jobs bill passed through Congress needs to be inclusive, needs to have focus on those areas that have high unemployment,” Morial said.
Sharpton insisted that he was not looking for a race-based jobs bill but argued that the involvement of leaders representing communities hardest hit by unemployment was essential to a successful jobs recovery.
“We must have input in this jobs and training bill,” Sharpton argues. “Why? Because our communities are the most impacted. We have to live and suffer with the results so we have to be at the table.”