The National Urban League's National Conference opens Wednesday in Boston. The 101-year-old organization's president, Marc Morial — a former mayor of New Orleans — sat down with The Root in the league's New York offices overlooking the city's waterfront.
A frank, wide-ranging conversation covered the nation's current economic struggles as well as the Urban League's ability to influence President Obama and Congress. "We have less impact on the ultimate course of legislation because of the Tea Party," Morial observed.
Read on to find out what else he had to say.
The Root: At a time when we have an African-American president but African Americans are bearing a heavy economic burden, what do you see as the role of the National Urban League?
Marc Morial: The Urban League today is as important as it's ever been, but in a very, very different way … We served more people in 2010 than at any time in our history. The numbers tell the story. It's a product of the Great Recession.
When times are tough, people look to us for job placement, job training, free after-school services, help staying in their homes. They look to us for our voice; we've been very active this year saying we need a jobs plan.
To some extent I feel I've been a voice in the wilderness while people have been distracted about lots of things. Times have changed, but I really think if the Urban League did not exist, people would be thinking about how to create it.
TR: Twenty, 30 years ago, the issues of African Americans were front-page news. Today they are often far less visible. Some papers don't even print the black unemployment rate when reporting joblessness.
MM: We're not on the front page of the paper because in many respects, the objective of civil rights was to help African Americans achieve mainstream positioning, whether it was in the government, whether it was in the elected sphere, whether it was in the mainstream of journalism, whether it was in the corporate suites or city halls.
To some extent, we've had a great deal of success in helping people achieve mainstream positions in American life. I spent most of my career in that sort of focused area: running a city, being in a legislature and being in a mainstream law firm. In the 1950s and '60s, when you thought of African-American leaders, the only thing you'd think of was outside the mainstream — activists. What is reflected today is that black leadership is much, much broader … The number of visible public spokespeople has really, really changed.
TR: The information on your website is all about jobs and economic empowerment. But considering the current recession, what impact do you think you're having on national policy?
MM: I thought at the beginning of the Obama administration that we had a great deal of impact on the structure and design of the stimulus [package]; we had a great deal of impact in helping the passage of health reform and bank reform.
We needed a health bill. Finally we had a chance. We had a president that would put his neck out, and we put tremendous effort behind passage of that legislation, influencing Congress. [Take] bank reform, which includes provisions against predatory lending. We had a great deal of impact, supportive impact on the passage of legislation.
What has changed, I think, is the backlash of the right. It has been very well organized, very systematized. It's been a coherent message coming from the right in the minds of the Tea Party. You see it being played out by the [right's] utilization of the debt [ceiling] limit to elevate a budget-cut scenario. That has changed the dynamic very dramatically in a two-year period. We're in a bit of a defensive posture trying to protect the things that are important to us.
TR: Do you feel that you have less influence on the Obama administration now than two years ago?
MM: We have less impact on the ultimate course of legislation because of the Tea Party; they have managed to create caution in middle-of-the-road Democrats and middle-of-the-road Republicans. They've been so strident.
There's a tendency by the Tea Party to overreach. That's why you see polls shifting hard [toward compromise] underneath this budget debate. Mitch McConnell probably saw it first: "I've got to put something out there. I don't want to be tied up in this scorched-earth policy."
I'm a big believer that public opinion can sway like a pendulum. We need a direct job-creating program. We need additional fiscal [stimulus] measures, whether it's two-thirds spending and one-third some targeted tax relief.
What we need to do as a nation from a strict economic policy, the political will is not there. There's a segment of the population that [believes] the biggest threat to the future of the nation is the debt. I'm convinced the government needs a fiscal plan. I'm not convinced that debt in the short term is the biggest threat to the future of the country.
TR: You're close to corporations, and you have corporate execs on your board that are sitting on trillions of dollars. They're not spending and they're not hiring. Why?
MM: There is not demand in the economy. It's fundamental. You will hear from some of [the execs] that it's uncertainty about regulations and uncertainty about taxes. I fundamentally don't buy that.
I think it is a political argument. But it isn't a political argument that a business is not going to spend if they don't think that by expanding, they're going to sell more goods. That's a real argument. What businesses have done is they contracted and right-sized; they've shed employees and they've become profitable on a smaller basis.
There are some strands in the business community who are not pro the president; there are some that are pro the president. I am a firm believer that there is too much ideological division intertwined with naked self-interest. A corporate CEO or a U.S. senator has to represent a constituency: my shareholder, my base. Top-level leaders should ask a second question: What is best for the nation?
TR: What do you want to come out of your conference?
MM: I want to come out with an elevated focus around jobs and an elevated understanding of our 12-point jobs plan. The second thing I want to come out of it with is the understanding that deep budget cuts are going to hurt the economy.
Joel Dreyfuss is the managing editor of The Root.