The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The president of the National Urban League discusses the state of black America

MANHATTAN, NY - DECEMBER 6: Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League poses for a portrait at his office in Manhattan, NY. 2017. (Drew Gurian/For The Washington Post)

Marc Morial, 60, is president of the National Urban League. He served two terms as mayor of New Orleans, was a Louisiana state senator and is a former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The National Urban League issues an annual report on the "State of Black America." Is right now a good time to be a black person in America?

They are the best of times and the worst of times. We have to acknowledge that — and most of this happened under Obama — the black unemployment rate is down to 7.5 percent. The economic surges of black America are not what I think they ought to be, but they are better than they were for the last decade and a half. However, we are seeing the most anti-civil-rights administration in modern American history.

How so?

There has been an outright effort by the administration to reverse many gains that we made. It has eliminated the progress we've made on criminal justice reform. When you look at the bogus voter commission, which is nothing other than an effort to pave the way for mass voter suppression, it solidifies and substantiates and legitimizes this attack on the ballot box that has been taking place all over the country. And most of us have come to rely on the presidency being a moral voice or a voice of reconciliation and progress. But the president's misstep around Charlottesville was significant in that it sent more than a wink and a nod message to the haters in this country, the modern-day Klansmen, the alternative right, the neo-Nazis. The president has traditionally been a voice against that, but we don't have that coming from this administration.

Can the president regain any ground with black America on that front?

I'm one who always believes there's room for reconciliation, but it would require an effort by the president to educate himself on black America. I don't think he knows or understands black America. Does he understand that black America is diverse and has made substantial contributions to American life in arts, in music, in education, in the economy, to academia, to discovery? The public utterances seem to be more caught up in negative racial stereotypes and paranoia.

You wrote in the preface to last year's report that "the social cancer of hate continues to metastasize." How do you mean that, and what does it mean for the country?

I think we've seen a rise in hate crimes. I think we've seen a rise in high-profile racist incidents. I think we've seen an organized effort that's been given legitimacy by a guy like Steve Bannon, who was a paid adviser to the president and is now an unpaid adviser to the president. So these hate groups are given legitimacy as though they are a responsible and respectable political movement in this country. People need to take out their history books and look at how the Nazi party got started in Germany. It began as a workers' movement and morphed into a hate movement. Every responsible leader has to not bend their knee in any way and needs to call out and condemn racial hatred, religious hatred against any people of any religious or racial background or any orientation. These are the times when we are all going to be asked in history: Where did you stand?

The Urban League was founded more than 100 years ago. What is its role now?

I think we reestablished ourselves as an important voice on national civil rights, economic and public policy issues. And we've also led a youth movement within the organization. We've got a whole new generation of local leaders. We've taken a proud, strong historic organization and retooled it for the 21st century.

What drives you as its leader?

My fire is really about justice and economic opportunity. To me, economic opportunity is one of the basic principles of America. Black people should be able to earn for themselves a good, basic quality of life. You get there by having a just nation and a just economy and having educational institutions that work in that regard.

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