Jobs Take Focus At CBC Legislative Conference

The annual meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus kicks off Wednesday in Washington, D.C. Michel Martin speaks with CBC Chairman Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) about African-Americans' 16.7 percent unemployment rate and why the CBC has not been more aggressive in criticizing President Obama.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, it's no surprise that immigration - especially illegal immigration - remains a hot-button issue in the United States, and sometimes that heat turns violent. In 2008, seven white teens attacked and killed an immigrant from Ecuador who lived for many years in Patchogue, New York. But what happened in the community after that death might surprise you. The story became the subject of a new film, and we'll tell you about it in a few minutes. But first, we want to talk about a subject that is on so many people's minds right now: jobs. And we're talking about how unemployment is affecting different groups in different ways.

National unemployment continues to hover above 9 percent. But when the Department of Labor's numbers are broken down by race, we find that the unemployment rate for whites fell slightly in the month of August to eight percent, but in the same time frame for African-Americans, the jobless rate climbed to 16.7 percent. That's the highest rate since 1984.

That issue is the central focus of the annual legislative conference of the Congressional Black Caucus, which kicks off today here in Washington, D.C. Here to tell us more about it is Emanuel Cleaver. He is the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, also known as the CBC. He is a Democrat. He represents Missouri's fifth congressional district. Welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us once again.

Representative EMANUEL CLEAVER: Sure. Good to be here with you.

MARTIN: The Congressional Black Caucus hosted a number of job fairs around the country over the summer: Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami and Atlanta. What did you learn from those job fairs that you didn't already know?

CLEAVER: Well, I didn't think that I would learn anything. I've seen pain before. And I grew up in public housing, so I've seen many poor people and I've seen people looking for jobs, but this was unique. First of all, the jobs we were able to bring to those fairs were jobs that already existed. IBM didn't create any new jobs. Wal-Mart didn't create any new jobs. What they did was to bring jobs they already had, and we're pleased, because we have thousands of African-Americans who gained employment as a result of our job fairs.

However, what I learned from that is there's an inextricable connection between jobs and transportation, because the jobs that were already in existence were in locations where those who were unemployed had difficulty reaching. The jobs are being created almost all around the country in the suburban areas, and African-Americans and Latinos - who are at 11.3 unemployment - and they're having difficulty getting from that urban core to the jobs in the suburbs, primarily because most of the cities in the Midwest and in the far West don't have the kind of transportation systems that are available on the East Coast.

So, we can't solve the problem of unemployment unless we also solve the problems of transporting individuals from the urban core to the suburbs.

MARTIN: And is that a policy issue?

CLEAVER: Well, I do think that there's a policy issue in here. One is that we've got to start putting more money into UMTA, the Urban Mass Transit Administration.

MARTIN: I guess what you're saying is you do see opportunities here for government entities to be helpful.

CLEAVER: This is one of the reasons we have a federal government. The federal government is the only system of government that will be able to help in dealing with this problem, moving people to where the jobs are.

MARTIN: And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. He's the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is known as the CBC. We're talking about jobs and other issues which are on the agenda of the Congressional Black Caucus' annual legislative conference, which kicks off today. You were quoted by the McClatchy newspaper service as saying that "if Bill Clinton had been in the White House and had failed to address this problem, we probably would be marching on the White House."

You're also quoted as saying: "There's a less volatile reaction in the CBC because nobody wants to do anything that would empower the people who hate the president." What are you saying? Are you saying that the president is not doing enough, and that you would be more critical of him were he not African-American? Are you saying that the criticism of him is unfair? What exactly are you saying?

CLEAVER: Well, there's no question that President Barack Obama is under siege, and he's been faced with issues that no other president in the history of this republic has had to prove, that he was an American citizen. And no president has been questioned about his or her patriotism. And so there's no question that he is subjected to things that no other presidents been subjected to, and the Congressional Black Caucus is not going to be a part of empowering people who would like to dismantle his credibility as the leader of the United States of America.

MARTIN: But are you saying you're giving him a pass in part because he's black?

CLEAVER: No, we're not. No, we are saying, unapologetically, that we are probably going to refrain from some of the vocal criticism that would be leveled at another president, whether that president was Democratic or Republican, because this president is subjected to things that past presidents have not been subjected to. I think that we would be less than authentic if we decided that we were going to pile on in a way that would give some kind of aid to those who are unfairly attacking the president.

The CBC does not agree with everything that the president has done. We think this jobs bill is absolutely fabulous, and we're going to support it wholeheartedly. But we do not agree with everything the president has done, and I think one of the problems that we've had, of course, is that people have difficulty covering a black president, and I understand that. I was the first black mayor in Kansas City. You know, if an African-American criticizes the president, it's far more attention-getting than Newt Gingrich criticizing the president.

So we've got to walk between the raindrops. We've got to be very careful about criticizing the president. What I'm hoping we can do is whenever there's some disagreement, that we can have some kind of a way in which we can discuss it with the president or his staff without being public.

MARTIN: You also were recorded elsewhere as saying that you're not pleased with the Republicans' efforts in this area, either. I guess what I'm wondering is why isn't the same standard being held to Republicans just based on the fact that the unemployment rate is so high, period, for a particular group of people, in the same way that the government mobilized around other - like a health crisis that affected a particular population?

CLEAVER: Well, you're absolutely right, and we do ask those questions. And, in fact, I just did a television interview during which I said very openly and clearly that the president does not vote on any piece of legislation. So the president cannot be held completely responsible for things that are not done in Congress. The president can propose. It is Congress that has the responsibility to dispose. And they...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, we're pressed for time because you've got to go.

CLEAVER: Sure.

MARTIN: But I do want to ask you about one of your other hats. You also are part of a civility caucus, as I understand it, on the Hill? You advanced this idea of a...

CLEAVER: Yes, I am.

MARTIN: ...civility caucus. You know, recently, a member of the Black Caucus, Representative Allen West - who was also a member of the Tea Party Caucus, and he's the first Republican to be a member of the Congressional Black Caucus in many, many years - said he was threatening to leave or was reconsidering his membership because of comments made by fellow member, Andre Carson, of Indiana. Representative Carson said at a CBC event in Miami that he thought that some people in the Tea Party would love to see you and me hanging on a tree. And Representative West felt that those were inappropriate remarks, and that - not conducive to the kind of civility that he feels is necessary to move the country forward.

And I'd like to ask you: What do you think? Do you think that Congressman Carson's comments were within bounds? Do you think that Congressman West has a point?

CLEAVER: Well, Congressman Carson is a young member of Congress, who I hope one day will become the chair of the - of CBC. And I think he's a very sensitive young man, and I look at him almost as a younger brother. I think - what I explained to Mr. West was that he is not subject to the emails and phone calls that many other members receive from the people who identify themselves as members of the Tea Party. If he, for example, answered the phone in the Congressional Black Caucus office, he might have some different thoughts.

MARTIN: You're saying that your folks are subjected to slurs and other...

CLEAVER: Yes. That's right.

MARTIN: ...things that perhaps Mr. West is not?

CLEAVER: That's right.

MARTIN: Well, Mr. West is also African-American. Is that...

CLEAVER: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: But he's not? You're saying he's not?

CLEAVER: He's an African-American, but he's not going to receive those phone calls from an organization to which he belongs.

Now, having said that, anytime anyone, including Mr. West, disparages another human being or another member of Congress, it is inappropriate, whether it's Andre Carson, Allen West or Joe Wilson or anybody. And I think that one of the problems we have here in Congress is that we have no civility. It's not a low level of civility. We have none.

And one of the reasons we can't get anything done, no bills legislated, is because of this whole issue that I learned with bees, which is that bees cannot sting and make honey at the same time and here in congress, we've become stingers. Therefore, legislation - the honey - is never made. And so we all have to watch what we say, whether we are a member of the CBC, the Tea Party, whether we are the Speaker of the House or anybody else. We've got to watch what we say. Words do matter.

MARTIN: Did you pass that message to Mr. Carson as well as to Mr. West?

CLEAVER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know, legislative conferences is usually a celebratory time, you know, where members of the caucus get together and kind of celebrate their achievements, as well as, you know, electoral successes and so forth. What's the atmosphere this year as you convene? And how optimistic are you that you'll actually be able to accomplish some of the things and achieve some headway on the things that concern you so greatly right now?

CLEAVER: Well, you know, we're not going to be as festive as we have been in the past, but we are going to be just as hopeful. We do believe that the president's on the right trail. He is pushing his jobs bill and we believe that when he speaks to the conference on Saturday night he can empower those who are there -some 4,000 people will be at the dinner - to go out into their communities and begin to push their members of Congress.

Then I think we can create the kind of pushback that will be necessary to keep the no's away. We can get this bill passed. We can get the American public behind us. The president is out trying to do it and we intend to help. And this conference will be an opportunity for us to reach out across this country to people who are influential in local and state governments.

MARTIN: Emanuel Cleaver is a Democrat. He represents Missouri's fifth congressional district in the U.S. Congress. He's also the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is convening its annual legislative conference today. And he was kind enough to join us from the studios on Capitol Hill.

Congressman Cleaver, thank you so much for joining us.

CLEAVER: Good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, bluegrass legend Bill Monroe would have been 100 years old this year. Writer Jason Cherkis took a trip around Kentucky to find out whether the distinctive sound Monroe loved and championed lives on.

JASON CHERKIS: I don't know that there'll ever be a crossover top 40 hit for bluegrass, but I think it's doing pretty well.

MARTIN: A journey through bluegrass country. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, his last name is one of the best known in all of pop music. He shares his memories of his brother, who was one of the biggest stars of all time. Jermaine Jackson will be with us to share his thoughts about the life and tragic death of his brother, Michael. That conversation's coming up later in the program.

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