Wall Street Forum To Focus On Minority Issues, Empowerment

Host Michel Martin speaks with the Rev. Jesse Jackson about his 13th annual Wall Street Project Economic Summit, hosted by Jackson's RainbowPUSH coalition. This year's summit focuses on strategies to invest in job creation, minority businesses and under-served communities.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, we start off talking about the economy. Coming up, we'll check in on Detroit, where the annual auto show kicked into action yesterday. Much of the talk has had little to do with cars. Instead, a lot of noise was made over a visit from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But first, the RainbowPUSH Wall Street Project and the Citizenship Education Fund will be hosting the 13th Annual Wall Street Economic Summit in New York, starting tomorrow. This year, the summit will focus its attention on the lagging U.S. economy, and we'll discuss ways in which the economic and community interests of minorities can be better served.

The three-day summit has always attracted high-profile personalities, and this year is no different. New York Governor David Paterson, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and, of course, our guest, the president and founder of RainbowPUSH Coalition, Reverend Jesse Jackson will all be there. And Reverend Jackson joins us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

Reverend JESSE JACKSON (President And Founder, RainbowPUSH Coalition): Thank you.

MARTIN: Obviously, unemployment across the country is at about 10 percent and as, of course, we know, unemployment among African-Americans is much higher. How will this summit address those issues? As I'm sure you know, a lot of Americans see a real disconnect between what's happening on Wall Street and what happens in the rest of the country.

Rev. JACKSON: Well, there is a disconnect because the banks declared emergency and they got direct investment, direct securities and protections, and they got billions of dollars without any linkage to reinvestment. And so, while Wall Street is rising, poverty's rising and unemployment is rising and home - insurance foreclosures are rising. Student loan defaults are rising. And there must be some connection.

The president says, for example, that he wants the money, the bailout funds paid back. They should be paid back, but they should be invested in the zones of pain. I am rather convinced that Roosevelt's approach to these banks must be revisited. He didn't just depend upon goodwill. His agenda restructured the banks. We have to have a Glass-Steagall law, where banks and securities can operate in the same house without any oversight.

MARTIN: What it seems, though, in part what you're saying is that your focus should be Washington, not Wall Street. I mean, so anything specially...

Rev. JACKSON: Well, specifically...

MARTIN: ...you're asking Wall Street to do?

Rev. JACKSON: Wall Street has been subsidized by Washington. In some sense, Wall Street is running away with capital without responsibility because they leveraged their power to keep the Senate from allowing judges to modify loans, for example. They used their power to neutralize the Congress. And when Congress was neutralized and didn't do oversight, they ran right past consumer protection laws, fair lending laws, fair housing laws, the Community Reinvestment Act.

Then they got monies to bail out, and they ignored EEOC, contract compliance, affirmative action. They did not honor Title VI. So when the laws are not there to protect the people, then the people are victimized. Now, minorities are coming to this, we - basically, what we want is access to capital and industry and technology, and broadband so we can grow. We have the capacity. We need the opportunity, and we need to be protected by law.

MARTIN: But - it again, though, suggests that the focus is on getting Washington to pressure Wall Street to do what you want it to do.

Rev. JACKSON: That, that's right.

MARTIN: Are there any levers that you have to operate over there?

Rev. JACKSON: On the glance, weekend New York Times said that of the five major banks, 3.3 million homes are eligible for modification. They only modified 30,000. Bank of America, at 1.1 million homes eligible, they modified 98. I mean, because banks and securities are one and the same, they have no interest in restructuring loans of churches and homes, and student loans and credit card scams. Their interest is in trading. Their interest is in globalization.

And that's why there's such a huge gap between Wall Street rising on the one hand, and poverty and unemployment rising on the other. And the president must, as it were, readjust his game plan and call an audible on the field and say, look, this is not working. We need a structure that's bottom-up, not just structure top-down. The trickle down is not working with the people who are down.

MARTIN: Do you think that the chief benefit of a summit like this, though, is to keep the pressure on or to keep the spotlight on these issues? Is that, do you think, what it chiefly does, or is there something else?

Rev. JACKSON: Well, it is to keep pressure on. I mean, we intend, for example, to meet with the top 10 banks and go to shareholders' meetings, begin to raise our voice in protest. We want to meet with the president and the treasurer to discuss growing poverty. We want people to begin to organize mass negotiations, as opposed to going to a given bank one by one, getting told no. We mean to start going to banks by the hundreds.

We want a congressional hearing on poverty zones. I mean, the disparity gaps do not need a conversation. They need investment and protection by law. There's so much talk these days about we need more dialogue about poverty, about race. No, we need investment and protection of law. Those two things will even the playing field. A few days ago, Texas played...

MARTIN: Alabama.

Rev. JACKSON: ...Alabama in the big football game. And I remember the days when George Wallace tried to block the school doors, Wallace in Alabama, (unintelligible) had to file a lawsuit against schools in Texas. But once those barriers got broken down, why aren't those kids on the field now, black and white together? They're not dialoging. They're playing. Why can they play so well together and the winner wins with a grace, and the loser lose with dignity?

Because in that situation, the playing field is even, and the rules are public and the goals are clear, and the referee is fair. That's all you really want. You want an even playing field.

MARTIN: And speaking of that sports metaphor, there's a new book in the news. Before I let you go, I have to ask you about - called �Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.� There's been two comments in the book that have gotten a lot of attention. I want to ask you about each of them in turn.

First, the book recorded comments made privately by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who described President Obama as light-skinned and with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one. And of course, the majority leader has subsequently apologized for these comments. Republicans have been calling for him to step down from his post. What's your take on this?

Rev. JACKSON: You know, we're overdosing on this statement by Reid. I'm interested in getting beyond a kind of gotcha point on the Reid, and get to the real issues of how do we even the playing field and give all Americans justice?

MARTIN: Do you think he should step down?

Rev. JACKSON: No. I think what he did was wrong. This is not - it does not come to the level of that.

MARTIN: There are those who are making the analogy with Trent Lott's remarks about Strom Thurmond and for which he did have to leave his post as the leader of Senate Republicans.

Rev. JACKSON: Two different people, two different circumstances.

MARTIN: And finally, what about the remarks allegedly made by former President Bill Clinton to the late Senator Ted Kennedy? Referring to President Obama, he reportedly said a few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.

Rev. JACKSON: Needless to say, I am far less interested today in that - in Chicago in the last year, 3,200 blacks die a year because the health-care gap. That's bigger than the number of people who died in 9/11. That - in 9/11, every year and the months - it gets no news.

People are dying. Unemployment for Americans around 10 percent, but black is 18 to 30 percent. For youth is 50 percent. Two-point-three million Americans in prison, a million-two are black that was locked up in the whole world. What's driving disparity and discrimination if we have the equal-protection laws to end that? So let's discuss matters of great substance and not what I call these gotcha statements.

MARTIN: And finally, why do you think that is that that is the focus, that this has gotten so much attention?

Rev. JACKSON: Well, I mean, I think the press loves kind of one-on-one scintillating stuff. I'm just trying to avoid getting trapped in the diversions, away from stuff that really matters on a day-to-day basis. People need equal protection under the law, and that's not being afforded to all Americans.

MARTIN: Reverend Jesse Jackson is the founder and president of the RainbowPUSH Coalition. He spoke with us from New York, just a day ahead of his organization's Wall Street Economic Summit. It's the 13th annual such summit, and it'll be meeting over the next couple of days. Reverend, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rev. JACKSON: Thank you.

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