President Obama, Black Leaders Meet About Solutions To Economic Crisis

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President Obama met Wednesday with civil rights leaders to address the impact of the economic crisis on the African-American community. Host Michel Martin speaks with the Rev. Al Sharpton, of the National Action Network, who was attended the meeting along with president's of the NAACP and the National Urban League. Sharpton is joined by Charles Ogletree, professor of law at Harvard University, who has been critical of President Obama's efforts to help the interests of African-Americans affected by the economy.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, as we look ahead to Valentines Day, we explore the joys and challenges of love and intimate relationships after 50 with author Abigail Trafford. Shes just written a book on that subject and well have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk more about jobs or rather joblessness. President Obama hosted a White House meeting yesterday to focus on how the economic crisis is affecting African-Americans in particular. While the national unemployment rate is just under 10 percent, more than 16 percent of African-Americans are now officially jobless. And that number does not include those whove been out of work so long, theyve dropped out of the hunt all together.

The Reverend Al Sharpton was one of those who attended yesterdays meeting. He is, of course, a well-known activist, a leader of the civil rights organization, the National Action Network. Hes also a former candidate for the Democratic nomination for president himself. Also with us is Charles Ogletree, professor of law at Harvard University. Hes long been an advisor of President Obamas. Thank you both so much for speaking to us. Welcome back, I should say.

Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Law, Harvard University): Hi, Michel.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (President, National Action Network): Good morning. Good morning.

MARTIN: Reverend Sharpton, any idea how this meeting came about?

Rev. SHARPTON: Yes, the four of us - Dr. Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP and Marc Morial of National Urban League and myself as president of the National Action Network wrote the president and we requested a meeting on this issue.

And about two weeks ago and Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser called back and said the president would accept our request and would meet with us on this issue. So, you know, a lot of the media that is speculating on how the meeting happened, we asked for the meeting and he granted the meeting.

MARTIN: So, were there any specific steps that youre asking him to take?

Rev. SHARPTON: No, we send the letter and in the meeting that we wanted to meet with him to aim for some focus on the fact that blacks in this country are roughly double in unemployment to whites, in some cities almost 50 percent black male unemployment. And we wanted to know how, in the present job creation bill that hes pushing the Senate and the House to do, how we can deal with that level of disparity as well as poverty in general.

The idea of the meeting was to explore, one, how we felt for him - to hear from us how we felt as well for us to get from him the commitment of the administration to make sure that all of these things were factored in, as we then now go to meet with House and Democrats and Republicans and in the Senate to rally around this bill. So it was a meeting to really exchange ideas. We didnt go in there with an ask list because, quite frankly, it would take more than the president to do this.

This legislation is going to have to come out of the House and the Senate. I think as we try to get a seat at the table for civil rights leadership, there is where we will have to have the devil in the detail. And we wanted to establish a seat at the table, as labor has done, as big business has done. Civil rights community has not been at the table as they try to iron out the specifics of this job bill.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that, whether you feel that joblessness is in for a civil rights issue. But I want to hear from Professor Ogletree.

Professor Ogletree, youve been asked a couple of times to reflect on this question of whether it makes sense, politically or substantively, to focus on an issue like joblessness as a black issue as opposed to an economic issue. What are your thoughts about that?

Prof. OGLETREE: Well, I think my thoughts are pretty clear, Michel, and that is that we have to focus on jobs as probably the most significant issue facing our country. President Johnson did it when he talked about a war on poverty. And President Roosevelt did it - Franklin Delano Roosevelt - when he talked about social security and other forms of aid. And President Obama will have to do it as well.

And the great thing about the meeting with Reverend Sharpton and Marc Morial and Ben Jealous and Dr. Height is that there was no disagreement that the number one priority right now is jobs for the group of Americans suffering more than any other, and thats African-Americans. The numbers are staggering. And the president heard that, he hosted this meeting. And now, hes going have to do what he suggested hes going to do and that is to make sure that jobs are his top priority.

I think theres been a wake-up call since the State of the Union address and the president has been reaching out. And people in his Cabinet have been pushing for jobs either through the program of agriculture with construction work. The Commerce Department with small minority businesses, getting Pell Grants back so kids can go to college and getting money to fund the HBCUs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And, I think, hes sees that all these issues are tied together.

And Reverend Sharpton and I every week talk about this in one respect or another in Reverend Sharptons radio program because its not going away. This president will have to make sure that its the top priority going forward.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Were talking about this weeks White House meeting about the economic crisis and how it specifically affects African-Americans. Were speaking with Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree and the Reverend Al Sharpton, the president and founder of the National Action Network and, of course, hes a well-known civil rights leader and a former candidate for the presidency himself.

Professor Ogletree, do you - you were quoted on CNN yesterday when you appeared on CNN yesterday, you said that the president has done a lot but not enough. Are you speaking specifically or globally about joblessness. Are you saying you dont think hes done enough specifically to address the particular challenges of African-Americans, whatever they may be in this particular area and how theyre faring in the economic crisis? Or do you think, overall, he has not done enough to address joblessness?

Prof. OGLETREE: That needs to be and excuse the term disaggregated. Not done enough, as Reverend Sharpton and I both agree, is that part of the challenge is that he cant just make a million jobs available and he cant make billion dollars available. He has to have the cooperation, as Reverend Sharpton said, of Congress. And it is a Democratic Congress with a high majority in the House and 59 members in the Senate, including some independents.

And so, theres not enough - and he said in the State of Union, he says the House has passed a jobs bill, and Im calling you, senators, to do the same thing. He said Democrats have done this. Im calling on you, Republicans, to do the same thing. So Im not blaming him. Im saying that he has to do more and that may mean using the bully pulpit, saying I want a bill on jobs on my desk right now, and I will sign it. And that means that, you know, the president knows he hasnt done as much as hed like to do.

He wanted health care passed this past fall, in January it didnt happen. You know, he wants to make sure, though, the great thing that Ive heard, the greatest thing Ive heard since the State of the Union address, Michel, is that hes saying, you know what, those banks that we bailed out in 2009, theyre going pay for this urban jobs program. Theyre going to be expected to give the money necessary. So thats a concrete definable plan and he can say it but he still needs Congress to make sure he can do it. He cant do it by himself.

MARTIN: Reverend Sharpton, do you think that the jobless situation is a civil rights issue, and if so, how so?

Rev. SHARPTON: I think that when you have a disparity as glaring as it is, where blacks are doubly unemployed, that is a civil rights issue because you have there - clearly from the data, there are systemic problems. Some of it is structural inequality, some of it is historic, some of it is discrimination. We must be at the table to discuss that. Ill give you an example. Dr. Ogletree just spoke about, the president can say, we demand. I want you to have a jobs bill on my desk right away (unintelligible) and there is going to be out of this a million jobs.

Well, if business is at the table and labor is at the table and some of the labor unions have been ones that have discriminated in the construction trade, for example, against black workers and we are not at the table, a million new jobs, we will not get out a share or if big business has discriminated, we will not get our share. So, I think that the thing that we started yesterday, we have to make it clear to the Senate and the House. We need to be at the table to make sure that this is for all Americans and that it is not a continuation of the structural inequality weve seen in the past when we create new jobs.

MARTIN: Professor Ogletree, can I get you to take that question as well?

Prof. OGLETREE: Yes.

MARTIN: Do you think that this is civil rights issue here?

Prof. OGLETREE: Oh, it is. I mean, when you talk about the idea that we have rights of voting, of educational rights in some respect and health rights that come out of the Constitution, that it is the most important civil rights issue because to have an education and not be able to get a job, to have an education and not be able to get health care, have an education and not be able to live in a home means that weve only cracked the door of Brown in 1954. And the next stages, of Reverend Jackson said, are remarkably and consistently from slavery to Jim Crow segregation to civil rights to economic power.

It is what stares us in the face. And in reality, the president not only has to see it that way, but Im convinced in my discussions with him and with his cabinet members that he has seen it that way and will see it that way. And his top priority, as you said, just a couple of weeks ago is jobs, jobs, jobs, no way around it.

MARTIN: And - but Professor Ogletree, Im sure this is a question which may drive you crazy, I dont know, but I still have to ask it. There are Americans who will say how could it be a civil rights issue when the man at the White House, the man with whom Reverend Sharpton and the other leaders met yesterday is himself African-American? How can this be a civil rights issue that if there are sort of disparities, then its related to other factors, like education, for example? How do you respond to that?

Prof. OGLETREE: Doesnt drive me crazy at all, Michel. The reality is that President Obama cant hire a million people. He doesnt have that authority. He lives in public housing where he is on a fixed income as the president of United States of America. So, to talk about we've got a black president, thats wonderful. As my dear friend Reverend Eugene Rivers said at our conference on the Vineyard last summer, he says, we got one black man in the White House, we got a million black men in jail.

So, weve got to change that equation. That is not the solution, thats the beginning of it. Its wonderful that weve done that. But it doesnt mean that we dont need civil rights, we dont need issues like affirmative action, we dont equal access. All those things that we needed before November 4, 2008, we need even more because some of us think that weve solved the problem of race by electing the first African-American president, we have not. We still have to talk about education, employment, housing, health care and jobs in a real sense, real jobs. And I think thats what will make a difference. The president will say the same thing: if I dont put people back to work, then my presidency has been a failure.

MARTIN: But - okay, thank you for that, Professor Charles Ogletree. He is a professor of law at Harvard University. He joined us from Miami. Well, Reverend Sharpton, you said that you are hoping to meet with members of Congress. Perhaps youll be able to come back and talk to us after those meetings. Thank you so much for joining us as well.

Prof. OGLETREE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: The Reverend Al Sharpton is a founder of the civil rights group, The National Action Network. He joined us by phone from New York. Also with us Charles Ogletree, professor of law at Harvard University. He joined us from Miami, Florida. Thank you, gentlemen.

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