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Tonight, President Obama is addressing the National Urban League conference in New Orleans. The speech comes as the president and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, debate the role of government in helping businesses succeed. Most of the people in the audience will be black Americans. And as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, they say that as a community, they can have an especially hard time when it come to owning an operating their own businesses.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: On the northern edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Shaka Zulu and his wife, Na'imah, are trying desperately to protect a slice of local culture that sometimes gets lost here.
SHAKA ZULU AND NA'IMAH SINGERS: (singing) My big chief got to go to ground. Well, it's one thing going to make me mad. My big chief got to go to ground. We got the big chief that they wish they had. My big chief...
FESSLER: That's the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, where African-Americans each year chant like this, parade around the city, and wear outfits elaborately decorated with beads and feathers. Shaka Zulu says it's all to pay homage to Native Americans who helped them during the time of slavery. Last year, he and his wife opened a restaurant and gallery here called Golden Feather, where several Mardi Gras suits are on display.
SHAKA ZULU: It's almost like an experience, you know, not so much a restaurant, but you want to come in here and have an experience on a culture that's so unique to New Orleans.
FESSLER: It seems a perfect fit for this touristy city. But for the Zulus, it's been a struggle every step of the way. Na'imah Zulu says they had to launch the business using their own savings and help of a couple of non-profits because they couldn't get any bank loans.
NA'IMAH ZULU: Of course, you know, business loans have a lot to do with whether you have homes and your assets and things like that. Well, a lot of us don't have extreme amount of assets due to our history.
FESSLER: And, indeed, that's a problem for lots of African-Americans, who studies show haven't accumulated nearly the same amount of wealth as whites. It's a little of a chicken-and-egg thing, says National Urban League president Marc Morial. He notes that the number of black-owned businesses has grown dramatically over the past decade, but the overwhelming majority have no employees and revenues below $50,000 a year.
MARC MORIAL: Black-owned businesses still face the challenges of the three C's - contracts, which mean opportunities to do business; contacts, which lead to business opportunities; and capital.
FESSLER: Which is one reason his group has started working more closely with lenders and major banks to help make some of those relationships happen. Morial says the Obama administration has done a lot to help, especially through the Small Business Administration. But he's pushing the White House to be even more aggressive.
MORIAL: We still have record high unemployment. We have record high unemployment in the African-American community, and there's a lot more work to be done.
VAUGHN RANDOLPH FAURIA: Things are getting better.
FESSLER: Vaughn Randolph Fauria agrees, but is also worried about pressure to cut government programs that help minority-owned businesses. She's president and CEO of NewCorp, a nonprofit that assists such companies in New Orleans.
FAURIA: But if we take out right now what is the safety net, then it could crumble. And so all of this work would then be something of the past, as opposed to something that built our future.
FESSLER: She says black-owned businesses not only get a lot of help from the SBA and other agencies, they also benefit greatly from requirements that minorities get at least a share of government contracts.
One of her clients, though, Louis Livers, says it's not always a sure thing that the money will trickle down to local businesses. He's had a general contracting company in New Orleans since 1990, and notes that billions of dollars were spent reconstructing the city after Hurricane Katrina.
LOUIS LIVERS: If half of the money had stayed here, this place would not look the way it does; that you drive around certain sections of New Orleans and it still looks like Katrina was days ago.
FESSLER: Instead, he says, most of the money went to large out-of-state contractors. Now, he and others have formed the Alliance of Minority Contractors so their companies can get a bigger piece of the pie, and hopefully hire local workers.
Shaka Zulu says that's the hardest thing for him at his restaurant. People come in looking for work and he needs them to grow his business, but he doesn't have the money to hire them.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, New Orleans.
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