Q&A: Can Black America Stay Strong Under Trump?

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial speaks about the 2017 State of Black America report at the National Urban League in Washington. 

The state of black America, says the National Urban League, is strong. The Obama administration created 15 million new jobs, while the black unemployment rate dropped to its lowest level in a decade. High school graduation rates improved; the Affordable Care Act improved health outcomes and reduced the numbers of the uninsured.

The National Urban League’s 2017 State of Black America “Protecting our Progress” report looks at these indicators and also compares African American and Latino progress to whites’ in nearly 70 metropolitan areas to provide a snapshot of current social and economic well-being of the two groups.

But the improving condition of black America was then (Obama Time) and this is now (Trump Time). However ineptly they go about it, President Trump and congressional Republicans aim to set in motion a full-fledged retreat to the good old days when whites were up and blacks and Latinos were way, way down. Trump hangs over the National Urban League’s findings like a slow-moving thundercloud, portending a reversion to the mean times in just about every policy area affecting black economic and social advancement.

The League’s president, Marc Morial, has no plans to throw a pity party, however. Given the scope of the threat that the Trump regime poses, Morial, a two-term mayor of New Orleans who followed in the footsteps of his father Ernest, the city’s first black mayor, has been buoyed by young African Americans’ political activism. Morial has little time for people who complain about government, economic, and social conditions but refuse to take the easiest steps to fight back—like voting. “Discouragement is not a strategy; it is a permanent condition for black people,” says Morial. “No one is going to hand anything to anyone. You must have a persistent and continuous strategy to fight back.”

The American Prospect talked to the civil rights leader about the 2017 report and the toxic political climate. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Gabrielle Gurley: How do you protect African American progress when the White House and congressional Republicans have a pre-civil rights era mentality; white nationalists advise the president; and Congress continues to try to gut health-care coverage for millions?

Marc Morial: The progress that I’m talking about has been difficult, incremental, and not substantial enough. But from the days of the recession, black unemployment has declined; the black high school graduation rate has increased; health disparities have narrowed; African Americans now have a 50 percent lower uninsured rate. There are many things [that have improved.] People must be vigilant and engaged. National public policy could go in a very different direction and threaten that progress, whether it’s Justice Department retrenchment on enforcement of civil rights laws, or a Department of Education that seems to have surrendered accountability to the states.

Our report is not just a commentary; it includes statistics and [other] information. It’s the exact opposite of fake news—it’s just the facts. Those numbers show that we have an important distance to go in this country [to close] gap between African Americans [and whites] or the gap between whites and Latinos.

Yet under President Obama, black unemployment rates still far exceeded the rates for other groups. What are the structural and systemic problems that are most pervasive that need to be addressed to improve the employment outlook?

It’s really important to understand that while the differential or the gap of unemployment between blacks and whites remains pretty static, the black unemployment rate came down under President Obama to a 10-year low. That is an important point to make so that people don’t get the sense well that nothing ever changed.

But racial inequality in the American economy is persistent and difficult. Generally speaking, people with more higher education attainment levels generally have a low unemployment rate. So if you look at the college-educated as a group, their unemployment rates are probably 2 to 3 percent. If you look at people with no high school at all, their unemployment rates are generally higher. African American who have a college degree have an unemployment rate that’s about 50 percent of what whites have. That’s one of the reasons for the existence of the gap; it’s a structural issue.

Secondly, and it’s hard to put your finger on it, is the continued existence of racial discrimination in the workforce. It still exists and is still a factor. Those two things together are the driver of this employment differential.

Black income levels compared to whites are stable, but as a recent Economic Policy Institute report found African Americans up and down the income spectrum still make less than whites. You can have a bachelor’s or a master’s degree and still make less than a white person with a comparable education. How does the United States end racial discrimination in employment?

If I had the answer to that I’d president of the United States. That’s a difficult question and a continuing challenge.

What lurks behind this type discrimination, if a worker has the right credentials or a college or advanced degree yet he or she still cannot get wage or salary parity?

You still have subconscious bias and overt bias. You still have sometimes in hiring what I call the mirror-image rule—people look at the person to see if they can see themselves. There are a lot of factors that are present. But it is difficult to put your finger over the data. The data tells the plain and unambiguous truth that inequality still exists.

The Urban League’s Main Street Marshall Plan calls for a 10-year, $4 trillion investment in urban communities in a range of areas from fighting poverty and improving education opportunities to creating jobs and encouraging homeownership. But the Trump administration has been actively hostile to cities: What recourse do local communities in this climate?

There are parts of the plan that could gain some traction at the state, local, or national levels. For example, at the national level there’s been a lot of conversation about infrastructure. But what we’re saying to everyone is the infrastructure plan that we need in 2017 is not just some old pave-some-roads-fix-some-bridges plan. It needs to include community infrastructure: schools, parks, playgrounds, and libraries that can benefit and improve the quality of life in neighborhoods. We need to do something different with our water infrastructure. Flint demonstrated that. It’s crumbling across the nation because it’s a technology of the early 1900s.

How do you get policymakers in the room on infrastructure to figure out what to do and how to pay for it?

Let me say this about paying for infrastructure—or paying for anything. When [Congress] wanted to pay for the Iraq; they sure found out a way to do that. When they wanted to find a way to pay for tax cuts, they find a way to do it. What I have a lot of impatience with is when there is talk about some good investment in communities, people raise the flag of the deficit. But they don’t raise the flag of the deficit when they add billions to the military budget.

Donald Trump and many of the officials he has brought into government have distorted views about life in cities, particularly for African Americans. How do you deal with those attitudes?

I joined with the Congressional Black Caucus in saying that his comments during the campaign were reprehensible, hurtful and fed into a stereotypic narrative. What I do know is that in the continuing resolution that the Congress passed and the president signed, we did manage to avoid deep budget cuts and maintained consistent levels of investment in community development block grants and workforce development.

On public education and in civil rights enforcement, there is a great deal of concern that the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not in sync with what I would call the most current and innovative thinking about civil rights enforcement: You’ve got to hold police officers accountable and prosecute hate crimes.   

The old “lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” criminal justice doesn’t work. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck wrote a recent op-ed that said that the confrontational, aggressive policing that the Los Angeles Police Department embraced for years never worked and that that kind of policing was one of the causes of the Rodney King riots.

So state and local leaders have to develop their own criminal-justice reform strategies since Sessions cannot be counted on, especially given the order to review police department consent decrees?

Progressive leaders in cities and mayors and community leaders need to ask for meetings with Attorney General Sessions, so that while he is undertaking this consent decrees review—and I shared this in a meeting we had with him—it is very important that he talk to mayors and community leaders and not just talk to law enforcement to see what they think—because that’s a mistake.

How do you get the attorney general to broaden his contacts to include people in local communities beyond law enforcement when he doesn’t seem to be interested in that conversation?

All I can tell you is we all have to weigh in and make our voices heard. Any departure from the consent decrees to me is a step backwards.

Do you see cooperation on criminal-justice reforms between moderates and conservatives on issues like revamping sentencing for low-level drug offenses continuing in the current political environment?

Conservative, moderate, and progressive interests came very close to getting a federal sentencing reform bill through. I do not want and am disappointed to see a loss of momentum at the federal level. But here’s what’s important: 80 to 90 percent of criminal justice is state and local. In many state legislatures, even in my home state of Louisiana, there is criminal reform legislation moving through a very conservative legislature— whether it passes or not is a question. [Local governments] have municipal codes, ordinances, and bail practices that need to be reformed also. 

People need to step back and say, OK, we are not going to get support on criminal-justice reform at the federal level, but we should continue to advocate at the federal level and work aggressively at the state and local levels. Governors and state legislators know those old policies are terribly expensive, costing billions and billions. But they are not working, especially where nonviolent offenders are concerned. There are reams of evidence and studies that demonstrate that thinking about this differently makes good sense.

Voter suppression efforts are intensifying, Democrats did not have an aggressive GOTV effort during the 2016 presidential campaign, and the ongoing turmoil in Washington has produced significant unease in the country, particularly among African Americans. How do political parties and candidates motivate African Americans to vote in the post-Obama era?

First of all, campaigns and people who want people to vote for them have to structure campaigns that engage people in the community. You can’t do it over the internet and with social media alone.  You can’t engage in drive-by politics, which is showing up in the pulpits and churches in the last two weeks before an election and think that that alone will earn support.

It requires a full level of engagement. You put your finger on the problem in the 2016 cycle: There really was no grassroots, street-level mobilization in the African American community. It didn’t exist. If it did, it must have been like Casper, an invisible ghost. In my campaigns for mayor [of New Orleans], I had no differential between black and white turnout: I ran a very aggressive community engagement strategy to try to touch people in the community.

How do you view the Black Lives Matter movement’s influence on political activism?

It’s going in a very positive direction. The thing I say about young people is you didn’t invent it and you don’t own it; you’re part of a continuous tradition of activism. The generation of civil rights leaders today, we were all once activists. We were activists protesting against apartheid getting arrested at the South African Embassy. Boycotting the cafeteria at my [Georgetown University] law school because it was run by Marriott, which had investments in South Africa. 

The first wave of African American politicians, particularly in the South, were all former civil rights activists and leaders: John Lewis, Andrew Young; my father was an NAACP-activist-lawyer. They brought their civil rights and economic opportunity agendas to their time in government . You look at the early members of the Congressional Black Caucus: whether it was Bill Clay, Mickey Leland, or Ron Dellums, they had all been student activists, civil rights activists, or Black Power activists who got elected to public office.

But activism is not a replacement for civic engagement and voting. It’s got to be part of civic engagement and voting. You can’t get caught in what I call theoretical dialecticalism: just sitting around saying I believe that the best way to bring about change is through activism.

Every reasonable appropriate strategy has to be utilized, so activism is a part of that. So are voting, running for office, and public policy advocacy. Young people need to participate, be active, engaged, and, yes, to be disruptive. If it’s disruption for a cause, it has a purpose.

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