“The African-American community was disproportionately battered by the Great Recession, and has benefited the least from the fragile economic recovery. Unemployment remains unacceptably high; income inequality and the ever widening wealth gap threaten to relegate the black community to perpetual underclass status.”
Moving past the euphoria over President Obama’s re-election victory, leaders of African-American organizations and individuals gathered in the nation’s capital last week to discuss developing a common vision for public policy. The meeting was convened against the backdrop of the negotiations between the President and congressional leaders over a long-term deficit reduction plan and the so-called “fiscal cliff” of automatic spending cuts that will go into effect if an agreement cannot be reached by the end of the year. The collection of Black leadership was also a reminder of the impact of the Black vote in the 2012 presidential election, and the renewed demands for greater reciprocity placed upon President Obama by Black voters.
The convening groups were the National Urban League led by Marc Morial, the National Action Network under the leadership of Rev. Al Sharpton, the NAACP and its CEO, Ben Jealous, and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, headed up by Melanie Campbell. The meeting followed the State of the Black World Conference convened the week after the presidential election by the Institute of the Back World 21st Century (IBW) on the campus of Howard University in Washington, DC.
Throughout President Obama’s first term one of the recurring debates within the African-American community was the degree to which demands should be placed upon the nation’s first Black President; knowing fully the tremendous burden he was bearing as a trailblazer and historic figure. While recognizing the economic crisis unfolding in the nation, many Black leaders cautiously critiqued the administration with criticism qualified by the context of President Obama’s first-term challenges. The Institute of the Black World 21st Century, led by Dr. Ron Daniels, launched the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission to serve as a moderated and structured mechanism to assess the President’s performance against the myriad of challenges facing the African-American community. There were also numerous forums and meetings held over the last four years to grapple with the proper policy “voice” with which to speak to the President. Last week’s meeting was meant to create a baseline policy position that organizations can adopt and build upon.
The convening groups issued a declaratory statement – “A Message to the Nation” – that articulates priorities in five broad policy areas; economic parity, education, voting rights, health care, and criminal justice reform. With deficit negotiations underway, the focus on economic parity is timely and most relevant for the current policy debates on Capitol Hill. The statement supports the President’s balanced approach to reducing the deficit but goes one step further than the President in seeking tax equity. The groups call for adjusting marginal tax rates but makes clear they should apply no matter how an individual’s income is earned. This is an important distinction as most wealthy Americans are generating wealth not through wages but through investment income. While calling for “responsible” spending cuts, the groups do advocate for the preservation of a “safety net” for the most vulnerable and for investment in small businesses. In addition, the statement endorses investments in infrastructure development and repair as a means by which to address unemployment and long-term economic security.
In education, the groups call for the assignment of better prepared teachers in classrooms serving African-American students and investment in early childhood education and community-based programs. The administration’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (“STEM”) as the areas of optimal future careers is also endorsed by the groups, as is the goal of college education. While endorsing a college track, the statement also calls for affordability in college admission and an increase in federal support for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and community colleges.
As the administration rolls out the guidelines for implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” as the health care reform law has come to be branded, the statement calls for expanding Medicaid coverage and expanding access to care to address racial disparities in chronic illnesses. The groups also made certain to address the crisis in the criminal justice system and the mass incarceration of African-American youth; attributed primarily to the nation’s failed “War on Drugs.” In addition, sentencing disparities and the explosion of private prisons fed by the profit incentive embedded in the incarceration of individuals to fill jail cells is also cited as areas of grave concern. As is the ongoing attack on voting rights and the group calls upon the Obama administration to vigorously defend the Voting Rights Act when it comes before the United States Supreme Court.
The meeting of these groups foreshadows the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the great March on Washington in August. In many ways, as the challenges that faced African-Americans in 1963 were met with a collective effort, the myriad of issues confronting Blacks today will require a sustained, focused and institutional response. The unknown is the degree to which the groups can exercise discipline in mapping strategies and consistency in their messaging and communications. As has always been the case, crisis and more parochial concerns complicate collective action, but the initial commitment to support a common agenda is an important step toward a clearer articulation of the needs of African-Americans in federal policy making. If the groups can manage to build a working relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus, and other progressive policy voices around the Beltway, the prospects for success increase exponentially.
The full statement that was issued by the convening groups can be found here.