Q & A with Congressman Mel Watt

Congressman Mel Watt
President Bush met with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) earlier this month, and according to media pundits across the country, the meeting was a resounding success. What agenda did the CBC push to the president?

We basically framed the agenda for the president as the need to close and eliminate disparities that exist between African-Americans and the rest of America. This may seem fairly focused, but it covers numerous areas because disparities exist virtually in every area of black Americans' lives. We focused on education, healthcare, jobs, economic development, civil justice, retirement security and foreign policy. In every single one of these areas disparities and inequities exist.

White House spokesman Andrew McClellan said that African-Americans are getting cheated because they have shorter life spans, and get less in return for the taxes they pay into the Social Security system. Bush maintains that the new changes would benefit the black community at large.

This is insulting, inaccurate, and a myth that the Bush administration is pushing. Unless you guarantee the existing Social Security benefits to participants, poverty among senior African-Americans would actually double. To go away from the existing system without having a specific solution would actually widen the poverty disparity that already exists. In the meeting, the CBC tried to impress upon the president that we would evaluate whatever specific proposal he makes, not in political terms, but in terms of whether it closes, eliminates or widens the existing disparities. We don’t know at this point because we haven’t seen the specifics of the proposal. We do know that when we do see the president’s proposal, we have developed evaluative criteria to measure it.

From the discourse across the nation one may gather that economic empowerment seems to be the rallying cry of the black community. Has the fight for racial justice taken a back seat? Has it now been replaced by the economy and wealth concerns?

To make the African-American community decide between racial justice and economic empowerment is to make us choose a false choice. There are substantial disparities in the poverty, which is not about economic empowerment, but about survival. There are also substantial disparities that continue to exist in terms of accumulation of wealth, homeownership, business ownership, the size of businesses, management, and executive and board opportunities. All of those things are civil rights, and we need to be working on all of them. People who make us choose between working for a rights agenda for poor people and a rights agenda for middle and upper class African-Americans force us to make choices that no one else in society has to make. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

In his inauguration speech the president pledged to get rid of “the baggage of bigotry” in America? How would you advise him to do that?

First of all, my reaction to that comment focuses on the causes, rather than the results. The reality is that there are substantial disparities for Black people — whether they are from past or present bigotry, or continuing effects of past discrimination. We need to address the continuing disparities, regardless when they resulted. The notion that all we've got to work on is getting rid of current day bigots, which we do hope are diminishing in number, loses the focus, which is dealing with the real impacts of yesterday’s, last year's and ten-years-ago and 40-years-ago bigotry. America can’t just focus on the current day’s bigotry as the cause of everything, because that’s not what’s causing it. It’s the effects of the inattention to existing inequalities. Let’s get caught up on how to eliminate the effects, regardless of what the causes are.

The black vote for the president in election 2004 went up from nine to 11 percent...

The two percent increase for the Republicans does not necessarily show that more blacks were enamored of the president, but instead demonstrates that they felt this president provided more national security. I personally don’t feel that’s true, but I can see how people, both black and white, got that misimpression from everything that was going on in the political arena. There were a lot of different dynamics that went into this election, not the least of which was the whole feeling of feeling under siege at home,

Why do some CBC members still dispute the Ohio ballot count?

I’m not sure if CBC members are still disputing the count. What we’re saying is that there were some real inequities and real inabilities affecting people physically going to the polls. I don’t think anyone is necessarily still contending that we should go back and reverse the outcome of the 2004 election. However, all of us believe that a flawed election in 2000, and yet another flawed election in 2004, shows that something needs to change, so that the election in 2008 at the presidential level, or 2006 at the congressional level, or 2005 at the city and county levels, don’t have the same problems. To put your head in the sand and to claim we have a perfect democracy when people are being discouraged from voting, when people show up at the polls and stand in long lines, when people actually cast their votes and see their votes not being counted properly, is irresponsible and inconsistent with our claim that America is the model democracy for the world.

As you know, February is Black History Month — a salute to the African-American heroes of the past and present. What should black history month mean for all Americans?

America should look back and remember the past and the sacrifices that African-Americans made to get us where we are today. However, it’s not all about a retrospective look; we should also be looking at what we’re doing today and realizing that there’s plenty of distance to go to close these disparities that continue to exist. We should be projecting how much further down the road will we able to finally achieve the dream that Martin Luther King talked about. I never look at Black History Month as only a retrospective. It should also be focused on the future.

In 1992 Melvin Watt was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from North Carolina's 12th Congressional District, the state's most urban district. He is one of only two African-American members elected to Congress from North Carolina in the 20th century. Congressman Watt is a member of the House Financial Services Committee, the House Judiciary Committee (on which he serves as ranking member on the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law) and the House/Senate Joint Economic Committee. He served as president of the Mecklenburg County Bar and has been a member of many professional, community and civic boards and organizations. Watt practiced law with the law firm formerly known as Chambers, Stein, Ferguson and Becton from 1971-1992. He served one term in the North Carolina Senate (1985-86) where he was called “the conscience of the senate.” He is also the newly elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and member of the Mt. Olive Presbyterian Church and a life member of the NAACP.