Obama Addresses Societal Inequities at National Urban League Convention

 

By Wamara Mwine
President Obama delivered a sobering speech on education reform and racial inequalities at the 2010 National Urban League Centennial Conference.
 
Stuck on many minds was the previous week’s national and racially divisive drama known as the Shirley Sherrod firing. The incident has recently acquired its very own place on Wikipedia. Ms. Sherrod has been on the airwaves today saying she will sue blogger Andrew Breitbert, following his posting of a misleading video that caused a racial uproar in Washington. Ms. Sherrod would resign in the fallout after being pressured by her superiors at the USDA.
 
President Obama was quick to acknowledge the mistakes made during his speech at the Washington Convention Center Thursday. “We were reminded this past week that we still got work to do when it comes to promoting the values of fairness and equality and mutual understanding that must bind us together as a nation,” Obama noted. 
 
 “Now, many are to blame for the reaction and overreaction that followed these comments – including my own administration,” Obama admitted. “And what I said to Shirley was that the full story she was trying to tell – a story about overcoming our own biases and recognizing ourselves in folks who, on the surface, seem different – is exactly the kind of story we need to hear in America.” 
 
 “A good woman with a story of reconciliation got trashed by a series of events which began when a blogger took a doctored tape and put it up on the internet,” National Urban League President Marc Morial noted about the incident. “It was an effort to orchestrate a hit on the NAACP in response to the resolution that they passed last week. I don’t want that point to be missed,” he added. Morial and the National Urban League conference had a zesty feel. Clearly avoiding the embarrassment suffered by the NAACP from the Sherrod incident did not hurt.
 
 
Mr. Obama utilized the forum to outline his education reform package Race to the Top Fund. He addressed the issues of the next generation. “These are young people who’ve been relegated to failing schools in struggling communities, where there are too many obstacles, too few role models,” the president said to a mostly quiet audience. “Just last week, we learned that in a single generation, America went from number one to 12th in college completion rates for young adults.  Used to be number one, now we’re number 12,” Obama lamented.
 

Yet the president also had to discuss the increasing unemployment problem, which is statistically much higher in the black community. Browsing through the glossy handout I noticed an entire section addressing inequities in the black community. The workshop titles read:

 

 “The Prosperity Promise: A Plan to Put Urban America Back to Work.”
 
“Saving our Sons: Empowering the African American Male.”
 
“Predatory Lending and Industry Scams: How to Protect Yourself.”
 
“Creating a Personal Economic Recovery Plan.”
 
 Obama tried to pay attention to these conditions that effect African American and other minorities indiscriminately by highlighting education reform. “Now, because a higher education has never been more important – or more expensive – it’s absolutely essential that we put a college degree within reach for anyone who wants it,” Obama said. The president’s education reform plan is the most expansive in U.S. history, costing $43 million.
 
Two states, Tennessee and Delaware have won the first disbursements. Eighteen other states and Washington D.C. are finalists for the second round.
 
Obama argued that Bush policy No Child Left Behind Actgave the states the wrong incentives.”  “A bunch of states watered down their standards so that school districts wouldn’t be penalized when their students fell short,” the president noted.  Morial said that inequalities are still a major concern, even with the new plan. “Black students continue to fall further behind. We have been very concerned for a long time about inequitable $3,000 or $4,000 for a per pupil and another school district spends $7,000 to $8,000 per a pupil,” Morial said after President Obama spoke.
 
“It hits the point of availability of computers, science labs, class size, and compensation for teachers, extracurricular activities like art, music and after school homework assistance,” Morial said. The Urban League joined other civil rights organizations in a report that was critical of Obama’s plan. The report says data demonstrates only 3 percent of African American students and less than 1 percent of Latinos will benefit in the first disbursement of the Race to the Top competition.
 
“We support people that support civil rights and economic opportunity,” Morial said when I asked what made the National Urban League stand apart from other civil rights groups. “We don’t care what party, region or race. We have championed the kinds of things we have championed for a long time. We will not fall into the trap of painting anyone with a broad brush,” Morial added in our interview.
 
Yet the same cannot be said of the media coverage of this past week. Morial made an appearance on a panel discussion on race this past Sunday on Meet the Press. The only African American on the panel, he fielded questions by Moderator David Gregory. The lopsided discussion was dominated by three white journalists and former White House Communications adviser Anita Dunn.
 
Here is one exchange between Gregory and Morial on that program. If Morial was not the only African American on the panel it might not have felt like he had to answer for the administration.
 
Gregory: There is a unwillingness by this administration and this president to engage on matters of race because of a kind of skittishness not wanting to get to close to it, is that fair?
 
Morial: The president would benefit by a broad circle of external advisers and maybe some internal advisers, who have the experience, particularly in the South, the contemporary experience of the civil rights movement, that could serve as a sounding board and I think this president would benefit and every president would benefit by having those type of people, those experiences in his circle of advisers.
 
The awful billboards certainly repudiated now, which compared the president of the United States, the elected leader of this great democracy, with two of the worst figures in 20th century history; Adolph Hitler and Lenin. Then I asked myself though would I ever have seen a President Bush, a President Clinton a President Nixon ever portrayed in that fashion? So sometimes what people react to is not what is stated, but they also react to what they see.
 
 
What stood out in my mind was a still shot of E.J. Dionne and David Brooks looking on as Morial spoke. You could see the wheels turning as this well-spoken civil rights leader made his point. Yet Morial was the only African American panelist on this segment discussing race relations. The television media is notoriously lacking black analysts. This says nothing of panelist CNBC On-Air Editor Rick Santelli's comments to Morial about borrowed debt. Santelli came across as exceptionally authoritarian, if not outright rude. I watched the exchange a number of times. If Morial had spoken to Santelli the same way, it would have caused some controversy. This is the very double standard that canned Sherrod. This theory encourages the suppression of black independent thought by either dismissing or discounting it.
 

It is no coincidence that Rick Santelli has received credit for founding the Tea Party. It was also with great irony for me as an African American reporter that Maureen Dowd’s New York Times Op-Ed regarding Sherrod described what I already knew. The piece noted that the White House “didn’t return the calls and e-mail of prominent blacks who tried to alert them that something was wrong” in the Sherrod case.

 

Wamara Mwine covers the White House for PoliticsInColor.com. At United Press International, NBC and CNN, Mwine covered national politics. Mwine's passion for social issues is reflected in his letters published in USA Today. Wamara Mwine advises attorneys, politicians and church leaders in crisis-media and public relations. He can be reached at politicsincolor@gmail.com.