National Urban League urges attention on housing, jobs for African Americans

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; 4:12 PM

When the National Urban League opened its doors 100 years ago, African Americans were leaving the sharecropping South for big Northern cities. They migrated in droves, and the group -- which then called itself the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes -- was founded to help the newcomers improve their work lives and squalid housing.

A century later, the league remains focused on housing and jobs. The issues today stem from the disproportionate rate of foreclosure and unemployment that African Americans face in this economic downturn.

On Wednesday, the group's leader, Marc Morial, released the league's "State of Black America" report, a compilation of data that has told the halting tale of black economic advancement. The league was founded in 1910 to foster black economic equality, but progress has been slow, Morial said.

With the health-care bill signed, he is pushing hard for a jobs bill that will bring down the double-digit unemployment rate among African Americans. Last month, blacks were unemployed at nearly twice the rate of whites, 15.9 percent to 8.8 percent.

"We need a strong jobs bill to put people back to work, not a modest jobs bill," Morial said at a news conference at which the report was released. "A nation that can spend billions of dollars bailing out banks on Wall Street can and should pass a jobs bill that helps out-of-work Americans."

He said the economic stimulus and the jobs bill passed by Congress a week ago did not do enough to target employment in poor communities.

The need is urgent, Morial said. When the Urban League began tracking economic and racial disparities annually in 1974, black families made 58 percent as much as white families -- a median of $7,808 compared with $13,356. In 2008, black families made 62 percent as much as white families -- $34,218 compared with $55,530.

"It's like being the caboose on a train. African Americans are the caboose," Morial said. "If the train goes 20 miles an hour, you're the caboose. If the train goes 200 miles an hour, you're the caboose. You can move faster and still be behind.

"The [economic] disparity should never mask the fact that we have more African Americans who are middle class than ever before, but there's a continuing duality of our community."

That duality has created confusion for the Urban League and other traditional black civil rights groups, which are contending with a setback in black economic advancement as they celebrate the administration of the first African American president.

The most recent rift has arisen over the jobs bill. Morial, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the head of the NAACP have asked President Obama and Congress to do more to help blacks. Obama has declined to target any specific racial group, insisting that a rising economic tide will lift African Americans as well as others.

"This window of opportunity gives us a chance to really begin to look at the chronically unemployed," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the CBC. "It's just do we have the political will to do this?"

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