At the annual conference of the National Urban League, which turns 100 this year, the group’s president, Marc H. Morial, challenged the notion that the country should be entering a “post-racial” period.
Decrying inequities in the status of black men as measured against whites, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also pointed out the dire straits of federal and state budgets.
“They’re cutting back on public transportation,” Jackson said during a morning panel discussion, “cutting back on public housing, cutting back on public ed[ucation]; and the result is [we] have built the largest jail-industrial complex in the world, of which 55 percent [of the inmate population] are black. To me that’s the heart of the civil rights struggle.”
But Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and U.N. ambassador, shifted the emphasis to financial improvements for black America.
“We have to hold on to the politics, hold on to the judiciary,” Young said during the panel, “but if we don’t understand some of the economics, we’ll lose them both.”
Vernon Jordan, who served as League president for 11 years until 1982 and is now its elder statesman, noted in his keynote address the rise of a formidable black middle class.
“Black buying power in 2008 was $913 billion, and is projected to reach $1 trillion in three short years,” he said, before adding: “Today more black men are in jail than in college. . . . Go back to the 1980 Census and you will find that there were three times as many black men in college as there were in prison; but by the 2000 Census it had flipped.”
He noted that in 1970, fewer than 1,500 blacks held public office, a figure that now exceeds 10,000.
For all that progress, however, Jordan cited the fact that black unemployment stands over 15 percent–well over the national rate of 9.5 percent–as evidence of how much the black community must still do to achieve its goals.
“We have to say to folks in leadership, whether it is the White House or anybody else: ‘Don’t be so afraid of white folks that you treat black people bad,'” she [Maxine Waters] said. “Whether it is the White House or the NAACP, you cannot live in the moment of responding to the right-wing press, who is using that platform to literally do their organizing, to intimidate you and basically run this country!”
Addressing directly the “enemy” that she said confronts black America, Waters, a 10-term lawmaker known for her colorful outbursts, shouted: “Bring it on! Bring it on!”
Noted scholar Cornel West chided Obama for paying more attention to Wall Street than black Americans on the streets.
“Just as you’re devoted to rescuing investment bankers,” West said during an afternoon panel discussion, “you ought to be interested to rescuing Lateesha, Jamal, and the others.” He added a spirited nod: “Mr. President, love your brother!”