The head of the National Urban League discusses the economic challenges facing African-Americans and President Obama.
The National Urban League’s annual convention returns to Boston Wednesday for the first time in 35 years. The theme of the four-day event is “Jobs Rebuild America,” and will focus on ways to increase employment opportunities for African-American individuals and small business owners. Before the conference, NUL president Marc Morial had a frank conversation with BET.com about jobs, the economy, the debt ceiling and how well President Obama has dealt with the most pressing issues facing Black communities.
BET.com: How will the conference address the challenges that so many African-Americans face in their efforts to find jobs?
Morial: Our conference is themed around jobs and the rebuilding of America. We’ll be launching a new Urban League Jobs Network, which is an online jobs board that will help people connect with 150,000 jobs nationwide. Secondly, we’ll be hosting Small Business Matters activities to connect small businesses with procurement opportunities. We’ll also have a jobs fair at the Boston Convention Center. We have a lot of employers who will be in Boston hiring and who will post listings on the jobs network. We recognize that there are not enough jobs to available, but the Urban League is going to try to be an effective connector by bringing opportunities to people.
BET.com: Why in your opinion has the African-American unemployment rate remained so persistently high?
Morial: I think that the number one reason is that budgetary cutbacks in state and local governments affect the black community in a big way. We’re the municipal workers, we’re the school district employees, and those cutbacks are going to affect both black unemployment and city services. The “last hired, first fired” rule is still very alive and well. And, no doubt, it’s because there’s a differential in educational attainment. The higher a person’s academic attainment level, the lower the unemployment rate is. But things are very tough for black college graduates, particularly recent graduates. This is a very, very nasty recession and difficult downturn. People who expected it to be short-term are learning it’s not and that’s why we believe at the NUL that the government and the private sector have to get up and work everyday on how to create jobs and economic growth.
BET.com: Do you think that lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in the White House have done enough to address Black unemployment?
Morial: I feel two ways about this. The president’s stimulus and housing recovery plans saved the economy from the abyss. However, at this point what’s clear is that additional steps are needed that will in fact focus on unemployment and urban Black and Latino unemployment, which is disproportionately high. We have to do more. The reality is that more than a year into “the recovery,” the unemployment rate still isn’t coming down fast enough, even though the economy is creating jobs.
BET.com: Some people say that President Obama lacks empathy.
Morial: I don’t believe that. I think he cares deeply and it’s a matter of working hard to convince him that we need targeted policies that are specifically focused on the urban community and on the Black unemployment problem. Now we see that even though the economy is coming back, unemployment in the Black community remains high.
BET.com: Lately news headlines are almost entirely focused on the debt ceiling debate taking place on Capitol Hill. Do you think that the Republican Party is taking a big risk with its hard stand?
Morial: I think that the debt ceiling vote should be decoupled from a discussion on deficit reduction. We need to increase the debt ceiling and a fiscal plan, but budget cuts on the backs of vulnerable people, cuts that reduce education, job training and housing, are going to affect the economy and cause more unemployment. That’s unacceptable. People should recognize that the very conservative side of the Republican Party is highly ideological. They want budget cuts at any cost. It appears that they want budget cuts even if it will create unemployment and I think that’s why public opinion is changing and why you see these new plans to raise the debt limit without the extortion of extreme budget cuts becoming a part of the debate.
BET.com: President Obama has appeared willing to compromise more than Democrats had hoped. Do you think he’s been too accommodating?
Morial: I feel very strongly that we cannot support extreme budget cuts or radical changes like block granting Medicaid or substantial cutbacks in Social Security. There’s a way to cut expenses on entitlements without radically damaging people and we could support that. They could put tighter controls on Medicaid providers and make modifications to Social Security eligibility for high-income individuals. There’s a wide variety of things that can be done to save money.
BET.com: Is there a chance that Obama will be a one-term president?
I think he’s in strong shape for re-election, but he’s got a tough road ahead of him just because of the challenges in the economy.
BET.com: He ran last time around on the theme of hope and change. What does Obama have to do to win back the support of people who are feeling disappointed that he has not kept his promises?
Morial: He’s got to remind people about the condition of things when he took office and that things are tough now, but the country is better off today than it was to a great extent when he took office. He has to wake up every day and fight to put more Americans to work.
BET.com: Do African-Americans need to be more vocal?
Morial: I think that African-American leaders have to continue to advocate for jobs and I reject the idea that advocating for jobs is anti the president. Everything we want to fight for shouldn’t be seen solely through that lens. The National Urban League has 12-point jobs plan and an urban jobs act it’s promoting. We haven’t just been rhetorical; we’ve also put ideas on the table.
(Photo: Nicholas Roberts/Getty Images)