National Urban League Charts Way Forward For Blacks

As the nation tries hard to recover from an economic crisis, a new report spells out how African-Americans can take part in that recovery. Entitled The State of Black America , the report is released annually by the National Urban League. The group's president and CEO, Marc Morial discusses their findings.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Today we begin the program by talking about two reports that tackle the issue of race in this country. In a few minutes, we will hear from Shirley Sherrod for a discussion about bridging our racial divisions. She wrote the foreword to one report, a collection of essays. Shirley Sherrod, of course, is the former USDA officials who was fired after her remarks and career were misrepresented by a conservative blogger.

But first, we hear from the leader of one of this country's leading civil rights organizations about his group's new report, an annual one, that assesses how African-Americans are fairing compared to whites on key measures such as health and economic opportunity. It's called "The State of Black America." It is published by the National Urban League. And the president and CEO of the group, Marc Morial, is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

Mr. MARC MORIAL (President and CEO, National Urban League): Good day. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, this report has been published annually since 1976. So for those who are not familiar with it, what do you try to capture in this report?

Mr. MORIAL: We try to capture the condition of black America in comparison to the condition of white America. And we try to make commentary on issues of importance to the nation.

MARTIN: What's the headline for this year's report?

Mr. MORIAL: Headline this year is jobs, jobs, jobs. That the high unemployment, which is a result of the great recession is the biggest challenge facing the nation and the biggest challenge facing black America. The joblessness rate in black America is almost 16 percent. It's twice as high as the overall rate. That means the rates are very high in urban communities across the nation.

So it's about the problem, but it's also about solutions. It's about policy solutions, but it's also about examples of people who are fighting to overcome the odds in these difficult times.

MARTIN: You know, the report makes clear that over the lifetime of this report, as we mentioned, this has been an annual report that's been published since 1976. There has been growing equality between blacks and whites in the unemployment rate. The percentage of uninsured, the incarceration rate and prisoners as a percentage of arrests.

On the other hand, you said there's been growing inequality in the poverty rate, the home ownership rate, and educational attainment in school enrollments rates. Why do you think that is?

Mr. MORIAL: I think African-Americans are like a caboose on a train. And when the train speeds up, African-Americans speed up, but still remain in the caboose. When the train slows down, the caboose slows down, but the caboose is still the caboose. And I think that no doubt that the economy, which now requires higher levels of educational attainment, better skills, it makes it difficult when you've got lower high school graduation rates.

So long-term, fixing the problem of education is going to be key. But in the short run, we need targeted economic policies. We need to understand that there are 474 counties in this nation, where the poverty rate is higher than 20 percent. If this issue goes beyond what people may think of in a traditional sense, we want to shed light on that.

And we want to shed light on the fact that a report includes 12 ideas for job creation. Some ideas like summer jobs that we've championed for a long time. Some ideas like green empowerment zones that are sort of a new idea. We want to showcase those ideas.

MARTIN: Is there any appetite for, as you call it, targeted efforts in this economic climate?

Mr. MORIAL: I think that there's beginning to be a bigger appetite from some. Congressman James Clyburn talked about targeted initiatives he's working on to us yesterday. President Obama has in fact included in his 2012 budget a proposal for growth zones.

We think there needs to be a more vigorous appetite. We think if people understood that the bigger the headache, the bigger the pill, meaning the larger dose of medicine is needed in those areas where the unemployment rate is higher. More targeted job training. More of an effort to create incentive for businesses to locate in areas where the unemployment rate is high.

It'll be good for the country at large. I think there's been somewhat of a reluctance to do that. I don't understand it. But the Urban League's voice is going to continue to say, we need targeted economic policy.

MARTIN: And, finally, before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about your prior life as the mayor of New Orleans. A new census figure is just out that shows that a number of major urban centers that had previously been, you know, super majority African-American populations are losing African-American population. New Orleans lost about 7 percent of its black population since the last census. According to these new figures, it dipped from about 67 percent African-American to 60 percent African-American.

Similar stories are playing out in places like Washington, D.C., Detroit. And I'm just curious, with your perspective as both the former mayor and as the leader of a national civil rights organization, what does this mean, you think, for our continuing conversations around civil rights?

Mr. MORIAL: I think what we need to understand is that those folks went somewhere. In the case of New Orleans, there's the Katrina effect, which means that people are now in places like Baton Rouge and Houston. What you've seen is as black populations in cities has declined, black populations in suburbs have increased. That means that to a great extent, African-American political and economic influence in the suburbs and in the smaller communities.

So I think it's important to look at not only what's happened to cities, but why now African-Americans now have greater influence and a greater presence in some areas that have historically been super majority white. Then as the census comes out, I think you're going to see a greater reflection of how these trends are. Housing be more open, affordable housing be more available in the suburbs.

These are the trends of African-Americans sort of following the same path that whites followed from the city to suburban communities, sometimes even now back to the south.

MARTIN: Marc Morial is president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League. His group is just out with its new report, "The State of Black America." That report has been published annually since 1976. Mr. Morial was kind enough to join us from a conference in Washington, D.C. that he's attending. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MORIAL: Thanks so much.

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