African-Americans, like any other population, are interested in a far range of issues: education, the environment, economics, fiscal and tax policy, foreign affairs. However, if there was one focus in the community, I would say it’s in the area of jobs and wealth and economic opportunity. The unemployment gap between the black and white communities has increased. Our numbers show that the black unemployment rate is closing in on 11 percent, but for the white community it’s under five percent. That gap is a great concern, particularly in major American cities. We’ve noted that in places like Chicago and New York the unemployment rate for African-American youth is at an unacceptably high level. So economic opportunity and jobs are a very important focus, and one of our focuses at the Urban League.
Are blacks more concerned with economic issues than civil rights?
No. Economic opportunity is a civil rights issue. Ensuring that past gains are not wiped out is also a concern for African-Americans, which is why there is great interest in judicial nominations and appointments. There is a great interest in preserving the civil rights laws that we fought for a generation ago, are making sure they are vigorously and fairly enforced.
According to the Urban League's equality index, the economic status of blacks is barely more than half that of whites, with one-third the rate of business formation and half the rate of homeownership. How can that be reversed?
There’s a much larger black middle class than we saw years ago, but there is also a much larger disparity between black and white unemployment. It’s important that we celebrate the emergence of a larger black middle class, but that middle class, which is usually just measured with income, does not account for the fact that the middle class may be a thin middle class because homeownership rates are not the same, the level of wealth — savings and investments — is not the same. It tells the story, but it also points to areas where they need to be important gains.
How can that change?
There first must be an aggressive effort to increase homeownership rates in the African-American community (74 percent of whites own a home, while less than 50 percent blacks do). Secondly, there should be a very strong focus on entrepreneurship, business ownership and development in the black community. Our role in the economy as consumers has dramatically increased in the last 15 years, but our role in the economy as producers of goods and services has not increased. Closely related to that is ensuring that college continues to be affordable — that economic barriers do not prevent qualified, hard-working, talented young people from being able to go to college.
First, public policy needs to improve access to homeownership. Secondly, the black community needs to be better trained in the rudiments of the fiscal system: investments, savings, credit cards, how to avoid unnecessary debt, how to put together family and household budgets.
How would you advise the president to get rid of “the baggage of bigotry” as he pledged to in his inauguration speech?
The President did a good thing by meeting with the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. It’s important for the president to personally have a dialogue with the leaders of the African-American community on an ongoing basis. In a dialogue you give and you take, you listen and you learn. Also, the president needs to make a commitment to the extension of the Voting Rights Act which comes up in 2007. He needs to also make a commitment to vigorously enforce all of the civil rights laws from the standpoint of the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
And how does the Black community feel about senior White House black officials like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice?
I can only speak for myself: I have a lot of pride in Condi Rice, in her accomplishments, the way she presents herself, the fact that she has become a history maker, but that doesn’t mean that she is immune from criticism because of her policies and views. You have to separate the two when you are talking about high-ranking appointments. We’ve come far enough to be able to make those distinctions. With Condi, there will be many who will applaud her accomplishments, have pride in her, but who at the same time will disagree with the position she has taken as National Security Advisor because of the grave reservations within the African-American community about the war in Iraq.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League (NUL). Previously, he served for two 4-year terms as mayor of New Orleans from 1994-2002. During that time, he also served as president of the United States Conference of Mayors in 2001 and 2002. He also served two years in the Louisiana State Senate where he was recognized as “Conservationist Senator of the Year,” “Education Senator of the Year” and “Legislative Rookie of the Year” for his outstanding accomplishments.