Black lawmakers, Obama split on minority job help

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The Congressional Black Caucus and President Barack Obama are at loggerheads over what to do about African-American unemployment, which is higher than the national average and has reached nearly 50 percent among teens.

Black caucus members have been pushing for economic help for minorities since last year's financial crisis exploded, and they're growing frustrated with the White House's reluctance to offer remedies specific to the people it's affected the most.

"As a candidate, President Obama said in his speech on race during the Democratic primary, 'Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,'" Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the caucus chairwoman, said Tuesday. "The facts speak for themselves. The Congressional Black Caucus recognizes that behind virtually every economic indicator you will find gross racial disparities. We believe that tackling systemic inequality requires specific, concrete and targeted action."

Obama, however, said he's not inclined to take that approach. In an interview last week with USA Today and the Detroit Free Press, Obama rejected creating minority-specific economic or jobs programs.

"I think the most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again," Obama told the newspapers. "I think it's a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together."

Caucus members were prepared to discuss their remedy for minority unemployment on the House floor Wednesday night. Ironically, however, a heated debate over a proposal for new financial regulations forced them to postpone their push.

Last week, 10 black caucus members who sit on the House Financial Services Committee boycotted a vote on that measure, which still passed the committee on a 31-27 party-line vote. The bill would place new restraints on Wall Street financial firms and require greater openness in the nation's central bank.

Undaunted, black caucus members say they're crafting their own jobs and economic recovery bill, which they hope to unveil soon.

Last month's national unemployment rate was 10 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For African-Americans, the jobless rate was 15.6 percent, while the unemployment rate for whites was 9.3 percent.

Young African-American men and women appear to be hardest hit. The jobless rate for African-Americans ages 16 to 19 was 49.4 percent last month, more than twice the 23 percent jobless rate for white men and women in the same age bracket, according to BLS figures.

"Recent African-American college graduates are unemployed at higher rates than their white counterparts and African-American workers remain unemployed an average of five weeks longer than the rest of America," Lee said Wednesday. "The gaps are very real."

However, Lee stressed that the caucus isn't feuding with congressional leaders or with Obama, the nation's first African-American president.

"The president is the president, and we want him to succeed," she said. "He has set out a broad executive agenda. We're Congress, and we have to advocate for our constituents. We're not seeking special treatment; we're talking about equal opportunity."

The exasperation of some caucus members over the White House's approach to the economy, health care and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has boiled over, however. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said last week that some of Obama's advisers needed schooling.

"I think that it is important for us to educate those people" around the president, she said. "We've got to get his people educated and moving. We have not brought these issues to him personally. It is important first to educate those people around him so they understand."

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he had a telephone conversation with Obama recently in which the president wanted to know why Conyers, the second-longest-serving House member, was publicly critical of him.

Obama "called me and told me that he heard that I was demeaning him," Conyers told The Hill, a congressional newspaper, "and I had to explain to him that it wasn't anything personal, it was an honest difference on the issues."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged Wednesday that Obama had contacted Conyers about comments the congressman made to news outlets.

"I don't know the exact words the president used," Gibbs said. "I think the president believed the criticism was untrue. Suffice to say, he reached out and touched someone. That's — only, like, older people in the room got that joke."

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