The Urban League and 'Black America'

NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams talks with University of Maryland Professor Ron Walters and Republican strategist Robert Traynham about the Urban League's report on "The State of Black America." They also discuss recent laws proposed on Capitol Hill concerning illegal immigration.

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GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES. Now, for a recap of this week's news from inside the Beltway, we go to NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams for this week's Political Corner. Juan?

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Thanks, Ed. I'm joined now by Ron Walters. He's a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. Professor Walters' new book is called Freedom Is Not Enough. Also with us, Robert Traynham. He's a political strategist with the GOP here in Washington. Both are with me in our NPR D.C. studio.

Gentlemen, thanks for joining us on Political Corner.

Prof. RON WALTERS (University of Maryland): Thank you, Juan.

Mr. ROBERT (Political Strategist, GOP, Washington): Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: The Urban League is in Washington as we speak this week for its annual conference. One of the issues that is going to be addressed is the state of black America's economy, and it's going to be pointed out that, if you look at the wealth in the black community, it still trails the white community substantially. If you look at what's going on after Katrina and the attention to poverty issues in the black community, they are now front and center. So Professor Walters, what do you expect to hear? What exactly can the Urban League do in terms of setting forth solutions?

Prof. WALTERS (Political Science Professor, University of Maryland): Well, I'm not so sure that the Urban League can set forth solutions by solving -- one of the messages that it's got now is that part of the problem, of course, is the individual behavior of individual African Americans, and to that extent I think sort of the traditional messages work. People have to do what they need to do in terms of preparing themselves for the labor market. But at the end of the day, they are hostage to the macro economy of this country, and they're hostage to things like outsourcing of jobs, and rates of competitive competition in low wage sectors of this economy.

So it's going to be very difficult for blacks to change things all by themselves. They've got to make sure that they demand that the public policy system responds to them and that government does the same thing.

WILLIAMS: One of the big differences -- I'm looking here at a report from the Urban League. It says more than 70% of white families own their own homes, compared with 50% of blacks. The unemployment rate for blacks is about 10%, compared with 4.4% for whites. And the Urban League has a report that's offering proposals for improving the economic conditions of black Americans in four areas: home ownership, jobs, economic development, children's education and health. Robert Traynham, is their a Republican take on this issue?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Absolutely. You know, first of all, I agree with Ron that African Americans are, obviously, beholden to the macroeconomic environment in which we all live in. But there's a couple of things I think we should take credit for. If you take a look at home ownership within the black community, it is at record levels. When you take a look at illiteracy rates through No Child Left Behind in the African American community, that as well is also up. When you take a look at minority health disparity, there's obviously room to improve in that, especially as it relates to colonoscopies, as it relates to AIDS, which is a pandemic in our community, as it relates to cancer, also diabetes.

And so again, there's a lot of improvement that needs to be done, but I think we should take credit for some of the significant strides that we have made in our community.

WILLIAMS: Let's move on to another topic. We have seen massive demonstrations in Los Angeles by the immigrant community, mostly the Hispanic community, against proposed legislation in the U.S. Senate, in the House of Representatives. Those demonstrations have also occurred in New York, Phoenix, here in Washington, D.C. Where is the African American community on this immigration issue?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: I don't know the answer to that question. I think the African American community as a whole has been fairly silent on this issue and frankly has been watching with awe. If you take a look at the employment dynamic -- first of all, there's are so many different dynamics going on here. There is an economic dynamic, there is a language dynamic, there is just an overall cultural dynamic. And so having said that, I'm not sure that the African American party, at least the leadership of us, has been communicating loudly on this issue.

WILLIAMS: When you say African American party, what do you mean by that?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: I'm sorry. What I mean by that specifically is the Urban League, is the NAACP, UNCF and some other traditional black groups. To my knowledge, they has been fairly quiet on this issue.

Prof. WALTERS: You're absolutely right. As a matter of fact, there's been a note that when you look at the thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people who have been marching, there are few blacks and very few African American leaders who have said anything about it. And also, if you look at the Congressional Black Caucus, Sheila Jackson Lee put in a relatively liberal immigration bill. Only 9 out of 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus supported it.

So there is considerable angst going on here. What they're feeling is I think the anxiety at the base in their constituency, which says that they are suffering job loss because of immigration of Hispanics. And that's a very difficult thing for African American leaders to talk about, because Hispanics are a part of our liberal coalition. But the truth is that there is some pain there.

WILLIAMS: The thought that occurs to me is that Paul Krugman, the columnist in the New York Times, who is usually to the left, wrote a column this week in which he said that if you have a wave of illegal immigration specifically, it drives down wages for blue collar workers in the United States.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: That's a good point, Juan. This weekend, the President will be traveling to the Summit of Americas with the Prime Minister of Canada and also with the President of Mexico to talk about this issue, because it is very, very important, not only from a political standpoint, but also from an economic and Constitutional standpoint as well.

WILLIAMS: Ron Walters?

Prof. WALTERS: I would say this, that what ought to happen is that we ought to test this question about whether or not Americans would do these jobs by saying that any immigration bill that's passed ought to have a provision in it which says that the first right of refusal to these jobs go to American citizens, and then of course charge the EEOC or some other agency with monitoring the process.

WILLIAMS: Well, is it the case, do you believe, that if there were no illegal immigrants, just legal immigrants, that unemployment for black Americans would go down?

Prof. WALTERS: Well, you know, it's very interesting. When you read the Economist on this question, it's a little bit of confusing...

WILLIAMS: The Economist magazine?

Prof. WALTERS: No. American economists. Pick one. It's very difficult because they use different measures to get at this question of the displacement rate and so forth. But what instinctively we know is that if this population weren't here, African Americans would have access to jobs, because in whole sectors of the economy, they're being shut out. If you look at meat packing employment, the figures I've seen recently indicate that both people who have high school degrees and those who don't have suffered declines in labor force participation rates. If you look at construction, if you look at restaurants, if you look at all of these jobs, that blacks and other Americans have suffered very dramatic declines in access to them.

So that the economists can argue, but the instinct on the part of people who want these jobs is relatively clear that immigration is having an effect.

WILLIAMS: All right, gentlemen, thank you so much. Ron Walters is a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, and Robert Traynham is a political strategist right here in Washington, D.C.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining us this week on Political Corner.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Thank you.

Prof. WALTERS: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Back to you, Ed.

GORDON: Thanks, Juan. Don't forget. Join us every Thursday for Juan Williams and his Washington Insiders right here on Political Corner.

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