MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On the program today as the president and congressional leaders continue to argue over how to address what we are told is a looming debt crisis. The leaders of the nations largest civil rights groups are also meeting. We decided to speak with three of them. In a few minutes we will speak with the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. That's the countries largest civil rights group that advocates for Latinos but first as we said the president and Speaker of the House John Boehner both addressed the country last night.
They made the point that on uncertainty is harming the country's prospect for recovery but while just everybody is feeling some of the effects of the countries economic problems African-Americans have been hit particularly hard. They are now twice as likely to be unemployed as whites. That's according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor statistics. Late last week President Obama acknowledged that disparity as he met with the leaders of two of the nations largest civil rights groups and they are both with us now.
Benjamin Jealous is President of the NAACP. That's the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. He's with us from Los Angeles where the NAACP's annual convention is being held this year. Mr. Jealous welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Also with us, Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League. That group focuses on jobs and economic development in underserved communities and he's with us now from Boston where his convention will kick off tomorrow. Welcome to you Mr. Morial. Thank you for joining us once again.
MARC MORIAL: Great to be with you, thank you.
MARTIN: I wanted to talk about the dueling speeches on the debt last night if we could start there. President Obama spoke first, the Speaker of the House John Boehner spoke next. I'll play a short clip from President Obama and hear what he had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
President BARACK OBAMA: This balanced approach asks everyone to give a little without requiring anyone to sacrifice too much. It would reduce the deficit by around four trillion dollars and put us on path to pay down our debt and the cuts wouldn't happen so abruptly that they'd be a drag on our economy or prevent us from helping small businesses and middle class families get back on their feet right now.
MARTIN: And here is House Speaker John Boehner.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
JOHN BOEHNER: This debate isn't about President Obama and the house Republicans. It isn't about Congress in the White House. It's about what's standing between the American people and the future we seek for ourselves and our families.
MARTIN: And I'd like to ask each of you because you're both leaders of organizations. You've spent a lot time around politics. Mr. Morial you were an elected official, you're a sub. I'd like to ask each of you who do you think is responsible or what do you think is responsible for this impasse and Mr. Jealous I'll ask you first?
JEALOUS: Sure, well, you know, we are at a time when there are great obstructionists in Congress who really have created a situation where business just can't get done. I mean, you know, there has always been a way for Republicans and Democrats to come together in the past and deal with these issues when you go through the history of it but we've never been in a time when we've had people oh, so absolutely committed to sort of an all or nothing approach.
MARTIN: And Mr. Morial what do you think?
MORIAL: I think the conservative interests in Congress artificially connected what is a routine vote on the debt ceiling to their political agenda which is to slash domestic programs that support and help working Americans and I think they've created an artificial crisis that the president has sought to manage within that context but I think it's clear at this point that the conservative interests the very conservative interests in Congress want to hold the nation hostage until their agenda is agreed to and I think it's got to be stood up to because it's a form of blackmail.
MORIAL: By saying if you don't agree to deep cuts that affect domestic programs protecting the military, protecting homeland security, protecting the tax code as it is today we're not going to vote for the debt ceiling and (unintelligible).
MARTIN: (unintelligible) and I'm asking how do you think it well, how should it be properly addressed?
MORIAL: I think that people should not agree to their demands and it is certainly going to cause and I think that well meaning productive and constructive members of Congress I think that there are a number of sort of middle ground plans that are on the table. The president certainly has offered one that as he described it last night requires a balanced approach if we're in a crisis and if we're talking about shared sacrifice in order to achieve shared prosperity or that there be meaningful shared sacrifice.
The plan--the Tea Party plan is not about shared sacrifice. It's about placing burdens on the backs of the most vulnerable Americans and that is just a non starter for the National Urban League and for the constituencies that we have to advocate for.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of a shared sacrifice and shared burdens it does appear that the burdens of the current economic difficulties are not being born equally as we've mentioned. The--at 16.2 percent of African-Americans are now unemployed. That is much higher than the general population of it's and I'd like to ask you. I'll start with you Mr. Jealous do you think the president is doing enough to address this issue?
JEALOUS: You know, I think he's actually being very aggressive within what he can do. What we need is a big jobs plan and of course we've been talking (unintelligible) obstructionists are ensuring that--that's not going to happen. Now, you know, in our community dealing with racial discrimination, I mean, we live in a time when it's harder for a black man with no criminal record and similar qualifications to find a job than a white man with a felony record.
You know, and so, for us fighting job discrimination is as important as job creation and one of the big things that we got him to commit to was not just continue to go the distance and all the rebuilding of the civil rights divisions based on that fight. You know, racial discrimination, gender discrimination and so forth but to go further and actually have multi agency cooperation to deal with this next generation of discriminations that tend to encase the first generation and that's discrimination in hiring based on your credit score.
How are you going to improve your credit score if we won't let you have a job or discrimination based on how long you've been without a job or discrimination based on the fact that you paid your debt to society by going to prison at some time in your life and so, you know, those were important commitments to receive. At the same time you see them through their strong cities, strong communities program and several others trying to move aggressively to use their branch to try to help cities rebuild.
Well, one of the things that we would like to see more of is, you know, them to take the funds that they have discretion over and really target them to the communities most in need but there are some agencies that are trying to get that done to.
MARTIN: For example, the Urban League has created Mr. Morial a 12 point job plan which includes creating urban job academies, expanding small business lending, funding direct, job creation. Is there a political will to do that Mr. Morial?
MORIAL: We have to create the political will and I give the President a great deal of credit for his first year to 18 months of stimulus and efforts to really save the American economy from the abyss but it's clear now more is needed. We're now in effect in this chapter called the jobless recovery and all of the information that we have and everything that we see on the ground from traveling around the nation, from doing job tours points to the fact that there's a need to do more.
We have to build a political will to do it. We certainly encourage the president to take a hard look himself at our 12 point plan and we came out of the meeting with a sense from that conversation with him saying that after the immediacy of this crisis job creation was going to be job one. The targeting which is something we've advocated for more than two years I think it's clear with the disparities in unemployment, with the increase in the wealth gap from the Pew study that was released today with the report that we'll release tomorrow on the black middle class showing sort of the erosion of many, many years of gains that a new, new segment, a new series of targeted economic policies are absolutely necessary in order to try to revive the American economy.
We're at a new point in time, I think, today, than we were six months, eight months or a year ago. And I think the president demonstrated a great deal of compassion. However, more must be done and we need not only leadership from the White House, we also need less obstructionism in Congress. So a great deal of our focus also has to be on creating the will.
MARTIN: And how do you do that? We have two minutes left. How do you do that?
MORIAL: I think that members of Congress should leave Washington and travel the countryside of this nation. I think if they got out, met real Americans, did less scripted events, got a chance to visit those communities, I think they'd be sensitized to this problem. I think that many members of Congress are so caught up in the routines and the gospel according to K Street and special interest, that to some extent they've lost touch with real Americans, real people who are out here struggling.
MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, in fact, the National Urban League is not immune from this struggle. The league has seen some local chapters close recently, including in Dayton, Ohio, Syracuse, New York, ironically some areas that might need that advocacy. So I wanted to ask you, maybe, Mr. Jealous, I'll give you the last word. Have you ever considered combining forces of your two organizations, given these difficult times?
JEALOUS: Yeah. We do all the time. On the ground we have a very different structure. They tend to have professionals. We tend to have volunteers, but our folks work together. And right now they're working to push people to call their congressman and say, look, you know, save Medicaid, save Social Security, save Medicare and, you know, save Pell Grants and do your job. Stand up and lead. Pull this country together. Put it back to work. Stop this sort of, you know, this partisan divide.
And the obstructionists in Congress really should be ashamed of themselves. I mean, we know how to get out of crises like this. We did it during the Great Depression. If we do the same thing now and we actually create jobs and get the economy going, we can back on our feet.
MARTIN: Ben Jealous is president of the NAACP. That's the national civil rights organization. He was with us from KTLA in Los Angeles, where the NAACP is meeting. Marc Morial is president of the National Urban League. He joined us from WGBH in Boston where the National Urban League is about to meet starting tomorrow. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for joining us.
MORIAL: Thank you, Michel.
JEALOUS: Thank you. Thank you.
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