Issues on the agenda of a White House meeting between national Black leaders and President Barack Obama last week indicate not much has changed over the past year - or the past decade for that matter - when it comes to equality for Black people.
Jobs, poverty, health care, voting rights, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and gender disparities – all top- ics of the one-hour White House discussion Feb. 18 – have been pervasive issues in the Black community.
“After hearing President Obama’s agenda priorities, the group had the opportunity to present the 21st Century Agenda for Jobs and Freedom, a document created by Black leader- ship in 2013 detailing their priorities on economic opportuni- ty, voting rights, education, healthcare and other issues,” said Melanie Campbell, president/CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation in a statement.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the in depth discussion on the criminal justice sys- tem went beyond simple complaints and delved into prospec- tive new policies.
“We were deeply gratified to hear both the President and the Attorney General’s commitment in describing the ways in which they stand united in some of the efforts to ensure that our criminal justice system reduces racial disparities and doesn’t break communities, as our current criminal justice system is doing, by the kind of mass incarceration, over-sentencing, and misuse of the criminal justice system that has been so rampant over the past 20 or 30 years,” Ifill said in remarks made after the meeting. “We think it’s really bold for the attorney general and the president to be making efforts to use clemency power to relieve those individuals who were sentenced before the fair sentencing act.”
Ifill said both the President and Attorney General Eric Holder “described in detail” their visions for fur- ther reforms to the criminal justice system.
The report from the leadership meeting was short on critiques of the President. Some African-Ameri- cans have said he hasn’t done nearly enough on the consistently double digit Black unemployment rate. But, National Urban League President/CEO indicated the topic was discussed in depth with hopes for some resolve.
“We talked extensively about the challenges of unemployment, the challenges of under-employment, the challenges of Black and urban and brown unem- ployment in this nation,” Morial said.
Agreement appeared to be the overriding senti- ment coming out of the meeting.
“This agenda … aligns in many respects with the president’s agenda,” Morial said, referring to the “Jobs and Freedom” agenda compiled after the March on Washington anniversary.
Rev. Al Sharpton stressed his National Action Network’s agreement with the President’s move to raise the minimum wage. “It’s not just having a job; but having wages that are guaranteed to provide for our families. We had full employment in the Black community during slavery. We just didn’t have wages. So we don’t want just a job, we want a job that pays, and pays so that we can take care of our families.”
Others present were Lorraine Miller, interim CEO of the NAACP; Wade Henderson, president, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights,
Representing the Obama Administration were Attorney General Eric Holder; Broderick Johnson, assistant to the presi- dent and cabinet secretary; Cecilia Muñoz, assistant to the President and director of the Domestic Policy Council; and Phillip Schiliro, White House advisor for Health Policy and Implementation.
Valerie Jarrett, assistant and senior advisor to the president, wrote reflective article following the White House meeting. In it, she said, “What was clear in this meeting was that many of the goals the President set forth in his State of the Union ad- dress will become reality because of the strong partnerships that he and his administration have forged with leaders from the civil rights community who work hard every day to advo- cate equality and opportunity for all.”
Jarrett concluded, “The President will continue to work with Congress where they are able and willing to act, but meet- ings like this provide optimistic reminders that there remain other leaders in the country who can act right now – to improve the economy, to ensure greater opportunity for all, and to keep this country moving in the right direction. The capacity for the President and his White House to convene thought leaders, de- cision makers, and community leaders, all of whom have ac- cess to both resources and the audiences we aim to reach, is a powerful tool, and one which President Obama hopes to wield effectively in 2014 for the good of all Americans.”