Activists Call on White House to Use "Bully Pulpit"

Hazel Trice Edney | 1/5/2010, 2:43 p.m.

Wall Street Symposium Next Week

As 2009 ended with Black unemployment rates at 15.6 percent - more than twice the rate of a decade ago , a dramatic five points more than a year ago, and twice the White unemployment rate - civil rights leaders are calling on President Obama to pointedly use his "bully pulpit" on behalf of African-Americans.

"I think there's a need for an additional stimulus package and the president needs to use his bully pulpit to make sure that not only is the money provided, but that governors, mayors and local officials actually spend it on the most vulnerable communities in our cities and states," says Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree, director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.In an interview with the NNPA News Service, Ogletree says special attention must be focused on €getting jobs to people, who are not just skilled or semi-skilled, but even the unskilled workers. That will be an important component of the stimulus packet as early as this spring.

Ogletree was referring to President Obama's contemplation of yet another stimulus package as a second shot to the economy that would be more pointed toward jobs rather than bailouts of banks, big business and lending institutions.

Moving headlong into 2010, jobs appear to be foremost on the agendas of civil rights spokespersons even as the long-awaited health care bill makes its final hurdles toward the White House. In NNPA interviews, leaders expressed clearly their readiness to take action for economic progress in the trenches.

"Banks got billions of dollars of interest-free money. When we watered the leaves, the water did not come down to the roots," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson who will host his annual Wall Street Project Economic Summit Jan. 13-15 at the New York Sheraton Hotel.

"At the roots we are losing with home foreclosures, church foreclosures, credit card scams, and net loss in jobs. So poverty is rising and small business failures are rising because of the lack of access to capital. We now need to reconstruct the economy from bottom up."

The Wall Street conference agenda at www.wallstreetproject.org is heavy with representatives from the Obama administration, including people from the departments of Commerce, Treasury, Small Business Administration, Agriculture and FDIC (Federal Department Insurance Corporation).

Members of Congress, as well as other civil rights leaders, including the National Urban League's Marc Morial and NNPA's Danny Bakewell will also be in attendance to discuss issues of economic reciprocity, Jackson said. "This will be our Black business community discussing where did the stimulus money go and who got it?"

A point of action, he says, will be the insistence that the Department of Justice enforce civil rights laws such as Title 6, created for the purpose of fair contracting and racial inclusion.

"Banks got billions without honoring fair housing laws, fair lending laws and the community re-investment act. They got stimulus money and did not have to honor EEOC," Jackson said. "The result is that money came down by the billions in virtually exclusionary patterns."

Of course, employment discrimination and joblessness among Blacks are not new on the civil rights agenda. It's just that with the disastrous economy and a newly elected Black president, Black leaders thought there would be a greater level of sensitivity and specificity from the White House to deal with the problem in the Black community.

But, when President Obama said last spring that a "rising tide lifts all boats", dissatisfaction grew swiftly and appears to be reaching a tipping point as 2010 begins, even by some who have been slow to criticize the Obama Administration.

"The economic condition of Black people is of grave concern," says the Rev. Al Sharpton. "There are those that are saying that we've been seeing about Main Street. I'm saying Blacks are not even on Main Street. We're in our own part of town. And if Main Street hasn't gotten any bailout, then we haven't even gotten the rumor.

Sharpton says he will continue to work with the White House on educational inequities in order to close the racial achievement gaps that lead to economic inequality.

"Clearly, any number of studies show that people that are less educated are the higher unemployed. So, we face the race gap and the educational gap that is also brought on by the race gap," Sharpton says.

Regardless of the strategy, it will have to include a specific focus on African-Americans, Sharpton agrees.

"We must specifically address the inequality based on race, even in the lower and middle class," he said. "You've got to remember that the fact of the matter is that if you raised everything as is, it would still be double Black unemployment and we would still have double the problems even though we would be better than we were, we would still be unequal.

We're looking for equality. We're not looking for a better form of oppression.

"Half the battle will be keeping the crucial issues of health care and Black economic equality in the public's eye," says Dr. Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women.

"We have to keep our issues out in a forum," says Height. She adds that activists must also remember that Obama was inaugurated in the midst of the economic crisis.

"We have to look at the complexity in the world that he inherited and where he is," she says. "The president didn't make the unemployment, but he's doing his best to fix it."