WASHINGTON – Prominent African-American leaders pressed President Barack Obama on Wednesday to pursue an economic agenda that includes targeted help for blacks, whose unemployment rate is much higher than the national average and nearly twice that of whites.
The three men who met privately with Obama for about an hour said they pushed for aid in urban and rural areas with large numbers of hurting minorities. It is the same message they hope to deliver to lawmakers of both parties as Congress considers new jobs legislation.
"We do not seek any special kind of edict ... from the president because he's African-American," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization. "We expect to be included in the process."
The meeting yielded no announcements or initiatives, although the leaders said they mainly wanted Obama to hear their message, and they professed confidence that he did.
On a day of treacherous weather, Obama kept his scheduled meeting with Sharpton; Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP; Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League. Dorothy Height, chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women, could not make it to the White House because of punishing snow and winds that largely shut down Washington.
The White House offered limited comment, saying Obama's discussion with the leaders covered the challenges facing economically disadvantaged communities and efforts to help.
"We worked very hard to share with him ideas around the need for targeted relief — and that means to urban communities, to areas of high unemployment," Morial said. He said the next challenge is to "create the political will in the Congress. My argument is that when cities do well, America does well. Cities are the economic engines."
Obama, the nation's first black president, has consistently held that he cannot adopt employment strategies that are designed to solely help blacks. But he supports targeting help to regions most in need, which in turn, he says, would lift the African-American community.
Jealous said the focus of the talk was on place, not race, meaning the regions populated by blacks and other groups that have been hit disproportionately hard by the recession.
"What's clear is that we have a president who gets it," Jealous said. He accused some Republican lawmakers and governors of obstructing Obama on initiatives like stimulus spending and a push to overhaul health insurance. Those efforts would help minorities, he said.
The unemployment rate for blacks was 16.5 percent in January, compared to 9.7 percent overall and 8.7 percent for whites.