By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; 6:00 PM
President Obama hosted a rare Oval Office meeting with civil rights leaders Wednesday to discuss his plans for improving the dire economic conditions gripping much of black America.
Obama had not met exclusively with civil rights leaders since he took office, and he used the occasion to signal his concern about mounting black joblessness while enlisting his guests' support for his proposals.
Despite a paralyzing blizzard in Washington, Obama brought together Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network; NAACP President Benjamin T. Jealous; and Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League, for a conversation that lasted nearly an hour. Dorothy I. Height, the 97-year-old chair of the National Council of Negro Women, was prevented from attending by the severe weather.
The participants emerged from the meeting convinced that Obama is deeply worried about the desperation felt in many communities across the country about the economy.
"You could see that the president felt the gravity of the problem facing not only African Americans, but all Americans," Sharpton said. "I think he was very clear that he was not going to engage in any race-based programs. But at the same time, he was determined that going forward we can correct some of the structural inequalities that are currently in place."
Jealous said the conversation focused less on race than on the many economically hard-hit areas of the country, from Detroit to rural areas in South and North Carolina. "The reality is that poverty has been greatly democratized by this recession," he said. "What all Americans have in common is that they are hurting and struggling and want to see the pace of progress quicken."
The meeting occurred as some African American leaders and scholars are expressing increasing frustration with the willingness of the first black president to directly address the economic problems plaguing black Americans. In December, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus threatened to oppose new regulations for the nation's financial system unless Obama did more to fight the pressing economic conditions in many black communities.
Jesse L. Jackson, who has had a sometimes contentious relationship with Obama, has been working to pressure the administration to do more to address home foreclosures, while complaining that the president's economic advisers have been more responsive to the needs of big business than of struggling individuals.
The leaders invited to the White House had requested the meeting with Obama in a letter two weeks ago, and Jackson was not among them. A spokesman for Jackson would say only that he was not invited.
In January, black unemployment ticked upward to 16.5 percent, while overall unemployment fell to 9.7 percent -- a yawning gap that persists in good times and bad. Numerous studies have found that black and other minority homebuyers are disproportionately affected by the home foreclosure crisis, and the rampant loss of wealth that has come with it.
But Obama has refused to separate the economic challenges faced by black and other minorities from the nation's broader fiscal struggles. Initiatives such as increasing federal financial aid to college, putting huge sums of federal money into public schools, and pushing to expand access to health care would disproportionately benefit working-class people, many of whom are black, he has said.
"Is there grumbling?" Obama asked rhetorically, in a December interview with American Urban Radio Networks' April D. Ryan. "Of course, there's grumbling, because we just went through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression."
He went on to say, that black people "were some of the folks who were most affected by predatory lending. There's a long history of us being the last hired and the first fired. As I said on health care, we're the ones who are in the worst position to absorb companies deciding to drop their health care plans," Obama said. "So, should people be satisfied? Absolutely not."
Still, Obama said that he should not target policies just to African Americans. "I'm the president of the entire United States," he said. "What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That, in turn, is going to help lift up the African American community."
The leaders who attended Wednesday's meeting said that, while they had never before met with Obama as a group, they had good relationships with many of his top advisers and his Cabinet. Meanwhile, they said they plan to meet in the coming weeks with the bipartisan leadership on Capitol Hill to make their case.
"A lot of what we are frustrated by comes down to other actors in the government, not just the White House," Jealous said.