Congressional Black Caucus Member Discusses Obama Meeting

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with President Obama yesterday to clear the air over lingering tensions on how the Obama administration has handled minority issues. Host Michel Martin speaks with Congresswoman Yvette Clarke for her take on the meeting, what the President said, and the concerns the CBC has with the Obama administration.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Coming up, we will ask whether separate is ever equal even in houses of worship. Recently, some women from different faith traditions have been asking why a separatism that is permitted in few other areas of American life is tolerated in places of worship. Today, well focus on Islam. Well have two women with different views. Thats our Faith Matters conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with President Obama yesterday, but they said there is no beef.

Representative BARBARA LEE (Democrat, California): Youre hearing grumbles. I dont know where youre hearing grumbles from, but were talking as a Black Caucus today. You see us all here, the majority of Caucus members that are here. And we are going to continue to work on our legislative agenda as the conscience of the Congress to fight for those who have been marginalized and for those who need our help, and things as you know are desperate out there.

MARTIN: That was Representative Barbara Lee, the chair of the Black Caucus talking with the media after the meeting. The congresswoman was no doubt reacting to a swirl of reports of complaints that the nations first African-American president is giving too little attention to the particular concerns of African-Americans who are suffering from unemployment rates 50 percent higher than the already troubling 9.7 rate being experienced by the overall population.

You heard about some of that yesterday on this program in my conversation with broadcast personality, Tavis Smiley, whos convening a meeting in Chicago next week, the presidents hometown, to talk about this.

We have called Congressman Yvette Clarke, the whip for the Congressional Black Caucus and represents New Yorks 11th Congressional District, to talk more about that. She was at that meeting with President Obama. And shes with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Representative YVETTE CLARKE (Democrat, New York): Well, thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: I want to mention here that the president also met yesterday with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus separately. We hope to hear more about that later. I wanted to ask how the meeting with the president came about. I understand the meeting was at his invitation. What did he say he wanted to talk about?

Rep. CLARKE: Well, he reached out to us because last week the caucus in a show of unity did something unprecedented in quite some time, actually. And that is to stand together to vote against what was called the jobs bill last week. We felt that it was important to highlight the fact that while we understand the crisis that small business is facing, the bill fell woefully short in terms of addressing needs in communities of color to really get people employed. And we felt it was a misnomer to call it a jobs bill when in fact it was a tax bill for small business.

Now, Im a true advocate for small business, but there are a couple of things that I have recognized about small business in communities of color. One, theyre not getting access to credit. And as long as that remains the case, an incentive of hiring really becomes ineffectual because if youre unable to expand your business, to expand your inventory, your business is sinking, the last thing that youre going to be able to take advantage of is a tax credit.

MARTIN: So, I take your point. This is the second time that the caucus had -earlier the caucus took a stand in the Financial Services Committee and boycotted a vote there for the same reason. Is your concern that the president himself is not attuned to these issues, that his staff is not attuned to these issues? What do you think is going on here?

Rep. CLARKE: I think that what we are asking for is that the president use his bully pulpit to look at a more far-reaching, deeper-penetrating jobs initiative. We go back to our districts every weekend, at least I do, and many of the members of the caucus do. And the level of unemployment in our communities is unacceptable.

And so when we stand up to vote for stimulus packages and jobs bills that we know dont include the types of initiatives that really reach the people who are hardest hit, we feel obligated to bring this to everyones attention and to have that included in the discussions and eventual legislation that comes forth, so that we make sure that the focus is not merely on business, but that its a two-pronged approach that includes those who are in our communities seeking to get back into the job market.

MARTIN: Well, it sounds like there is grumbling then, or grumbling - I dont know if you like that word - but there is discontent among members of the caucus with the approach that the White House. And from what Im hearing, you say the congressional leadership is also taking. So why didnt Congresswoman Lee just say that?

Rep. CLARKE: I think that - we are working in a spirit of cooperation, and we wanted to really emphasize the need going forward to do some innovative things. To, one, create new jobs in the community; two, establish training and apprenticeship types of programs that at least get our people primed for the new jobs. You know, we are voting and we understand the need for the green revolution thats taking place in our communities.

We recognize that there are infrastructure projects taking place. Another area that we focused on was the need to include women and minority-owned businesses that tend to hire people of color at a much higher rate than mainstream firms do. We felt it was important to bring to the attention of the president of the United States as well as the congressional leadership that were not meeting the mark in that regard.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you before you go that theres been this to-ing and fro-ing on the airwaves between different individuals like the Reverend Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley, the broadcaster who - Tavis Smiley making the argument that the president needs to have a more focused black agenda. And the Reverend Sharpton saying that he does, but tactically it doesnt make sense for him to say that he does. Where do you come out on that?

Rep. CLARKE: Its a rock and a hard place type of conversation thats taking place. The president recognizes the challenges that all Americans face in this economic climate. And hes the president of every one in the United States of America. But I think its also important that those of us who are on the ground, who have the information and recognize where legislation is not making the mark that we have an obligation to make sure that the president is conscious of it, that hes aware of it. And I think that its important that those of us who are of color that we advocate in the same way and thats what the CBC is doing.

MARTIN: Yvette Clarke represents New Yorks 11th district in the United States Congress. Shes both a whip for the Congressional Black Caucus and the senior whip for the Democratic Caucus and she joined us from the Capitol. Congresswoman, we thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rep. CLARKE: Thank you for having me, Michel.

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Black Leaders Ask: Where's Our President?

President Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick pictured above at a January 2009 dinner i i

hide captionA new generation of African-American leaders, like President Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (pictured above at a January 2009 dinner), seem to be moving away from the identity politics of their predecessors. But that has many in the black community feeling that a historic opportunity to address urban issues is slipping away.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick pictured above at a January 2009 dinner

A new generation of African-American leaders, like President Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (pictured above at a January 2009 dinner), seem to be moving away from the identity politics of their predecessors. But that has many in the black community feeling that a historic opportunity to address urban issues is slipping away.

Charles Dharapak/AP

From President Obama to prominent mayors and legislators across the country, a new wave of "post-black leaders" has been gaining prominence, in part by avoiding the identity politics of their predecessors.

But that inclusive outlook has translated into a painful reality for many in the black community who feel that a historic opportunity to address urban issues is slipping away, a victim to the changing political landscape, shifting demographics and a dreadful economy.

It was against that backdrop that members of the restive Congressional Black Caucus met privately Thursday with the president, who invited them to the White House to talk about his finish-line push to get health care legislation passed.

The leaders emerged from the one-hour meeting pledging to work together on an agenda that includes health care, education and the economy. But the nation's first black president no doubt got a private message from caucus members who are increasingly frustrated by what they see as Obama's lack of focus on poverty and unemployment in the African-American community.

'No Such Thing As A Black President'

The caucus' complaints — publicly aired before the meeting — underscore the shifting reality for traditional African-American leaders in a world where their most prominent political descendants are stepping away from identity politics.

It's not that America is suddenly post-racial, says Manning Marable, director of Columbia University's Institute for Research in African-American Studies.

"But there's just no such thing as a black president," says Marable, the author of many books on race and black leaders in America. "Obama's base is multiracial and multiclass and a reflection of the reality of America."

He characterizes new black leaders, from Obama to Massachusetts Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, as "post-black" politicians who "rarely, if ever, privilege or emphasize race in political decision-making."

The transformation, he argues, has been necessary and inevitable.

'They Need To Understand That [Race] Still Matters'

Obama's election epitomized the rise of the new class of African-American leaders that included not only Patrick, but also high-profile mayors Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., and Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C.

But as prominent movement leaders leave the stage because of age or, in the case of longtime New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, age and scandal, some African-Americans say they feel abandoned by the new wave.

Grievances With Obama?

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), accompanied by fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus i i

hide captionRep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), accompanied by fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, speaks to reporters Thursday outside the White House in Washington, following a meeting with President Obama.

Alex Brandon/AP
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), accompanied by fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), accompanied by fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, speaks to reporters Thursday outside the White House in Washington, following a meeting with President Obama.

Alex Brandon/AP

President Obama met Thursday afternoon with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, ostensibly to talk about efforts to get health care legislation passed. But the leaders also discussed jobs and high unemployment in the African-American community.

After the meeting, the White House in a statement said the president "acknowledged the progress that has been made on the economy, while also expressing his concern for long-term unemployment. He requested that members provide specific recommendations to the challenges concerning job creation."

Studies have shown that blacks and Latinos have been disproportionately hit by the dismal economy. According to the organization United for a Fair Economy, unemployment in those communities hit a 27-year high in 2009.

Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California, chairwoman of the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus, attempted to mute her members' public complaints about the president that preceded the caucus' White House meeting Thursday.

Emerging from the White House, Lee said caucus members have "been working with the president since before he was the president," and that she didn't know where reporters had heard "grumblings" about Obama.

Liz Halloran

"When I look at Patrick, Booker and Obama, they are not traditional black politicians — they're not from the black community and they don't have a natural base," says Leonard Moore, author of Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power.

"Obama wanted to come in as a new kind of politician, and, with the others, wanted to posture as de-racialized politicians," says Moore, an assistant vice president at the University of Texas at Austin. "But they need to understand that it still matters."

There is frustration that the president hasn't specifically articulated black issues, Moore says, particularly the pressing problems of the urban African-American community.

Unemployment among African-Americans has been hovering around 16 percent; the overall national rate reported earlier this month was 9.7 percent. A new jobs bill, black caucus members have complained, does little to address that stark reality.

So frustration is understandable, say activists like Kristen Clarke, a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"Certainly, Obama's election reflects the transformative possibilities for black American leadership," Clarke says.

"But there remains a need for a very deep conversation about race — and it needs to happen at the executive branch, with civil rights group on the ground and in the communities," she says.

Marable argues that social advocacy is better pursued outside of electoral policy, with the end product sometimes translating into legislation.

Change Isn't Coming; It's Here, And It's Latino

The intense discussion about leadership in the black community comes at a time when the political influence story is also shifting.

The nation will embark on a new census in coming weeks, and numbers collected during the once-a-decade effort will be used to fashion congressional districts.

Census experts predict that more minority-dominated districts will emerge from the process, but they will largely be majority Latino, says Tim Storey, a redistricting expert and senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Two decades ago, following the implementation of the Voting Rights Act, there was a surge in African-American candidates and members of state legislatures, he says.

Those numbers appear to have hit a plateau. Last year, there were 628 blacks among the nation's 7,382 state legislators. Blacks make up 13 percent of the nation's population and 9 percent of its state legislators.

"Really, the census story is going to be more on the Hispanic side, rather than the African-American side," Storey says. Growth in the Hispanic community, expected to become the nation's majority in 30 years, is far outpacing black population growth.

Going forward, the only way to increase black political representation, Storey says, will be to get African-American candidates elected in more white or multirace districts. It will be all about building coalitions.

Data show that about one-third of all black state legislators serving over the past few years had been elected in majority-white districts.

Hard Truths

That's the future, experts say, and one that Obama and other new-wave black politicians recognize.

Only 10 to 15 percent of whites now say they won't vote for a candidate who is black, Marable says, a dramatic change from the days when African-American candidates were typically unable to muster more than 40 percent of the vote.

Race remains a fundamental factor affecting one's chances in life, he says, but it has had a rapidly declining effect on electoral politics.

"Symbolic representation that may have worked in the '60s and '70s doesn't work today," Marable says, calling outdated the old desire to simply have what was referred to as a "black face in a high place."

Next week marks the second anniversary of then-candidate Obama's historic speech on race in America, "A More Perfect Union."

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