White House Meeting Came After Black Lawmakers Expressed Concern

The Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met separately with President Obama yesterday at the White House. The meetings followed reports that members of both groups believed that the president has not paid enough attention to the needs of their constituents. Host Michel Martin discusses what led to the meetings, and what the caucuses expect from the president with Politico.com reporter Nia-Malika Henderson.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We wanted to get additional perspective so we called Nia-Malika Henderson. She is a reporter for politico.com and shes written about the disconnect between the Congressional Black Caucus and President Obama. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON (Reporter, Politico.com): Its great to be here.

MARTIN: I wanted to pick up on a question that I asked Congresswoman Clarke which was that Barbara Lee, the chair of the Black Caucus, came before the media after the meeting yesterday and said theres no grumbling. But clearly there is. So, I wanted to ask you the same question I asked Congresswoman Clarke which is why dont they just say that?

Ms. HENDERSON: Right. I mean, well, they are saying it. I mean, they - I think they wanted to, in many ways, present a united front after coming out of the White House, an hour long meeting. But privately theyre grumbling, and in some ways, publicly theyre grumbling. I mean, its almost as if there is inherent tension between the CBCs mission and their agenda and what the presidents mission is.

They have a very progressive agenda. They want a really large, a jobs bill out of the House and the Senate and this political climate just doesnt really allow for that. And you have a president who is faced with trying in some ways to be a moderate Democrat, a new Democrat, if you will. And so, in many ways, I think, there is this inherent tension. And though they dont necessarily phrase it in that way. I mean, if you look at their agenda, you can see that theyre, in some ways, incongruent.

MARTIN: The president also met with members of the Hispanic Caucus yesterday to talk about health care and there is also a disconnect with that caucus in that they have been pushing the president to make more of a priority of immigration reform. Do you have any sense of whether there was any meeting of the minds after that meeting yesterday?

Ms. HENDERSON: Well, anytime anybody comes out of the White House, and then its almost like they have the White House glow. And they come out and they say it was a very productive and substantial meeting, and there was progress made, and they feel like they are on the same page. And so, thats kind of the language that we heard yesterday. They feel like there is going to be some movement.

But again, the president is one person. But then they go back to the Senate and the House. And whether or not, in this political climate, they can broker some sort of comprehensive immigration reform, it isnt clear. The conversations also talked about health care. And the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has some concerns about the provisions in some of these bills that could bar illegal immigrants from purchasing health care with their own money.

MARTIN: And finally, Nia, the president announced today, or the presidents office announced today, that he is delaying his planned trip to Asia. Hes pushing it back a week in order to try to make this final push on health care. And the reason I mentioned that is that one of the complaints of these groups is that health care has consumed so much of the presidents time and energy that other issues have not gotten the attention that they would like. Is that really going to change? I mean, isnt the die cast at this point?

Ms. HENDERSON: Yes. Who would have thought a year ago that we would still be talking about health care? I mean, we remember all of these deadlines the president said in trying to get health care passed. The first one was at the end of the summer. And here we are in March and it looks like, you know, I mean I think there is a 51 percent chance according to the folks in the White House that this may pass, so there is still a lot of wrangling to be done on this.

And in the meantime, the president has promised that he would be focusing like a laser on jobs. And guess what, how can he really do that given his schedules. Yesterday was packed with health care. Its hard for him to do that with health care still out there.

MARTIN: And the final point you made in your piece, and again well have a link to it, is that the president one of the issues in the presidents hip pocket is hes more popular with blacks and Latinos and probably any of these members of these caucuses is, so theres that.

Ms. HENDERSON: Its true. I mean, hes got 96 percent approval rating in the black communities. These members, though, theyre well liked in their districts, Id be hard pressed to find someone with that much approval. Its not that he doesnt necessarily need the CBC, but its certainly hard for them to push him and challenge him very publicly and vocally, because quite frankly they go back home and they see constituents who expect that their representatives have close relationships with this president. And quite frankly, their constituents also feel, in some ways, protective about this president and want to defend him and see him do well.

MARTIN: Nia-Malika Henderson is a reporter for Politico. She joined us from her office there in Northern Virginia in the Washington, D.C. area. If you want to read the piece were talking about and her other coverage, well have links on our Web Site. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Nia, thank you.

Ms. HENDERSON: Thank you.

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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

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 hide caption

itoggle caption 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

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 hide caption

itoggle caption 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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