Senior Correspondent

Respected report calls for targeted focus on problems of Black America

WASHINGTON ( – As the euphoria over the inauguration of the first Black President of the United States has begun to wear off, the National Urban League released its annual report on the overall Black condition March 25.

To achieve Black equality in White America “still needs work,” according to the report which declares these are the “Best of times and worst of times for Black America,” borrowing from the opening of the epic 1859 novel by Charles Dickens.


“They’re the best of times because obviously, the election of an African American president at this point in history is a marvelous accomplishment, a significant achievement which could not have been foreshadowed even 24 months ago, and that’s important,” Urban League President Marc Morial told reporters in a conference call.

“In addition to that, you have an unprecedented level of clout that African Americans have achieved in the Congress of the United States, with some 40-plus members of the CBC (Congressional Black Caucus); with African Americans holding four or is it five standing committees and some 16 subcommittee chairmanships; with James Clyburn serving as the number three person in the House; these are tools, these are accomplishments which are a product of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. So, these are the best of times, for those reasons.

“But they are the worst of times. We have lost ground in the last eight years from an economic standpoint. Virtually every single economic indicator for African Americans, whether it’s jobs, median income, or home ownership are down from where they were eight years ago.

“As we track our index from last year to this year, the gap between Black Americans and White Americans has indeed widened, even if so slightly in every area with the exception of health,” Mr. Morial continued.

The report, released every year since the 1970s, is a combination of cold statistical analyses along with a series of essays by researchers and experts which shows that while the entire country is hurting during these tough times, the Black population is disproportionately hurting worse.

This year shows a slight decline in the status of Blacks as compared to Whites, moving from 71.5 percent in 2008 to 71.1 percent in 2009. The only sub index that increased over the past year was in health–about 1.1 percentage points–largely because the gap narrowed for those without health insurance.

“The election of the first Black president does not mean we can all now close up shop and go home,” said Mr. Morial.“Instead, it’s more important than ever that the National Urban League and other organizations and individuals committed to positive change work even harder to lift up our communities and move this country forward.”

Mixed trends and indicators

Between 2003 and 2007 the poverty rate and home ownership rate declined for Blacks but increased for Whites, according to an analysis of the report’s Equality Index. Even as both groups made progress in educational attainment, the progress was slower for Blacks.During the same period while White children saw increases in “preprimary” enrollment of about 3 percent, Black children saw a decline of about 1 percent, causing the education gap to grow, not shrink.

The theme for this year’s report is “Message to the President,” a president who is seen as an ally by the Urban League. Not only is President Obama’s political home base in Chicago, a major city, which Mr. Morial believes makes the president more sensitive to the urban agenda; in 2007 when he was a U.S. senator, Mr. Obama actually wrote the foreword to the State of Black America report.

This year, in addition to essays from experts, there are letters to the president from ordinary citizens about their personal conditions. And there are recommendations on how President Obama and his administration might address the problems focusing on key areas such as green jobs, housing and schools and education.

But the most disturbing aspect of the report is the economic inequality of Blacks, despite the progress made on education over decades. The report showed that on a combined measure of economic factors–income, home ownership and numbers below the poverty line–Blacks rank at 57.4 percent compared with Whites.

During the recent economic expansion period from 2001-2007 (known as the jobless recovery period) there was a decline in real median household income for Blacks and Whites and an increase in the rate of poverty, according to the report.Real median household income from 2001-2007 declined 1.7 percent for Blacks and 3.9 percent for Whites and poverty rates increased 7.9 percent for Blacks and 5.1 percent for Whites. “The obvious question is why did that happen?” Mr. Morial said. “We have not finished doing our analysis on that point.

“But it’s important to know that in the 1990s, things got better for Black Americans and White Americans and in the 21st Century, things have deteriorated for Black Americans as well as for White Americans. It’s not something our researchers expected when we looked at the data this year, but that is certainly the case.”

At the same time, with national outrage growing over executive bonuses for bankers who drove the world economy to the brink of bankruptcy and ruin along with record breaking corporate profits averaging in some cases tens of thousands of dollars per minute, there has actually been a “re-distribution of wealth from the bottom to the top,” Mr. Morial agreed.

“I think you’re spot on in making that observation,” Mr. Morial said in response to a question from The Final Call. “We have been looking at those distribution figures for the last 60 years. We haven’t completed that analysis as a part of this report.

“But there’s no doubt that in the most recent period, the income and economic standing of the top 20 percent of the population in the economy got much better off. We think that it is very important for people to have some clarity to understand that, in terms of making public policy.

“That’s why the focus on jobs has to not only be a focus on jobs, but it’s also got to be a focus on jobs that produce good wages, that pay people better, that offer better benefits. That’s why this fix to the economy is a lot different–and I think the president has said this–than just rebuilding yesterday’s economy. It’s got to be about building today’s economy.

“African Americans have been affected more adversely by what you mentioned, because to a greater extent, we as a community have less depth of savings, less depth of investments, tend to rely more significantly on our wages to help us get along. White Americans, even at comparable wages have greater savings, many times greater investments. So, even when things are going down for Black and White Americans, Black Americans are more adversely affected, but I think you’re spot on in making your observation,” Mr. Morial said.

The State of Black America 2009 report notes that it will take more than just relying on the Obama administration to make a difference in urban America.While Blacks should hold government officials accountable at all levels, individuals must participate in order for change to happen.

“President Obama has stressed that change comes from the bottom up, not the other way around,” Mr. Morial said.“It is up to all of us–as citizens and advocates–to take a more active role in governance at all levels to make sure our voices are heard from city hall to the state house to the halls of Congress to the White House.”