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State of the Black Union addresses issues of race, politics

WASHINGTON—Politics and purpose will combine this weekend when thousands of people gather near historic Jamestown, Va., to hear African-American leaders give their take on the political, social and economic issues affecting the African-American community.

The eighth annual "State of the Black Union" symposium comes at a time when African-Americans' political fortunes—punctuated by Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's presidential candidacy—have never been brighter and problems affecting the community have never been more profound.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected African-American governor, headline a panel of political, academic and economic heavyweights at the two-day meeting, which begins Friday at Virginia's Hampton University.

The panelists will discuss a wide range of topics—from the 2008 presidential race to the state of the community's health to building and sustaining personal wealth—and outline potential solutions. A primary theme of the symposium is self-empowerment, that African-Americans must find solutions to problems instead of waiting for the government or others to do it for them.

"I have given up on trying to change `They and Them,'" said Tavis Smiley, a television and radio talk show host and author who'll host the symposium. "I'm more concerned about `We and Us.' How do we advance our agenda? There is no time like a race for the White House to get traction on issues that matter to your community if you have an agenda."

The site of the symposium is near Jamestown, which is celebrating the 400th anniversary of America's first permanent English settlement and which is where the first African slaves arrived.

In the centuries since, African-Americans have persevered and made great strides in this country, gaining voting rights and equal rights while shattering myths and stereotypes along the way. Despite the progress, the state of the African-American community today is a mixed bag, several African-American leaders and lawmakers say.

"It's equipoise," said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard University law professor who'll be a panelist at the symposium. "It's a couple of steps forward and a couple of steps backwards. When you see Barack Obama running for president, black members of the House of Representatives chairing important committees, and Condoleezza Rice as the first black female Secretary of State, and Deval Patrick elected governor in Massachusetts—a state with a racial past—that's a step forward."

But problems persist:

_Median household income for African-Americans is about 56 percent that of whites in 2006, a lower percentage than the year before, according to the National Urban League's annual State of Black America report.

_The scourge of HIV/AIDS continues to ravage the African-American community at an alarming clip. Of about 1 million HIV sufferers in the United States, 47 percent are African-American, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics for 2005, the most recent year available. African-Americans account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 56 percent of newly diagnosed HIV cases in 2005.

_African-Americans males are incarcerated at a rate six times greater than white males, according to a review by the Sentencing Project of 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics figures. The African-American prison population has exploded from 98,000 in 1954—the year the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision struck down school segregation—to 910,000 in 2005.

_Poor African-American adults suffer more health problems than their white counterparts, according to a report by the Commonwealth Fund. Sixty-three percent of African-Americans who earned up to twice the federal poverty level reported that they had one of four chronic diseases—hypertension, heart disease, diabetes or asthma—compared with 50 percent of low-income whites.

"When you see re-segregation of our neighborhoods and schools, that's a step backwards," Ogletree said. "When you see the health care of the African-American community as bad as some Third World countries, that's a step backwards."

Many of the problems are detailed in Smiley's book, "The Covenant with Black America," which became the first book published by a minority-owned company to top The New York Times best-seller list. Smiley's follow-up publication, "The Covenant in Action," was released this week and explores how the African-American community should address the problems.

Several of the issues affecting the community, such as improving access to health care, can be solved legislatively, some African-American thinkers say. They believe help could come from a Democratic-controlled Congress in which African-American lawmakers chair the Ways and Means, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Ethics committees in the House of Representatives. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., is the third-most powerful Democrat in the House as Majority Whip.

But Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor, said African-Americans shouldn't expect the rise of African-American lawmakers to leadership positions to produce results. With an eye toward retaining the Democrats' majority in 2008, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is keeping a tighter rein on committee chairs than previous speakers did, which could limit them from perusing particular issues they're interested in, Walters said.

"You've got the politics of 2008, which is a moderate approach over a progressive one," said Walters, who was a deputy campaign manager for Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential bid. "That will limit (the black committee chairs) in doing much on issues of poverty and race."

Still, politics is expected to be a focal point at this weekend's symposium. Smiley, Ogletree and others are urging African-American voters to scrutinize the presidential field and not let a candidate's race or family ties affect who they think will best serve the needs of the community.

"Our salvation as a people will not be found in Clinton Redux. It will not be found in Obama-rama," Smiley said in a radio commentary on Tuesday. "It's time to for us to make some demands and hold some folk accountable, starting with us."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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