Civil rights leaders at White House - Getty Images

President Barack Obama did something Wednesday he hasn't done until now in his first year in office; he had an exclusive meeting with civil rights leaders. The first African-American president of the U.S. met with the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network; Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, and Benjamin Jealous, head of the NAACP on a day when snow again paralyzed the nation's capital. Dorothy Height, the 97-year-old president of the National Council of Negro Women was also scheduled to attend but had to cancel because of the blizzard-like conditions.

The meeting, a year and two weeks into Obama's first term in office, was meant to signal the President's concern about the especially high rates of unemployment in black communities around the country. When the U. S. reported January jobless figures had dropped to 9.7 percent, higher rates of black unemployment - 16.5 percent overall and 17.6 among black men, (12.6 percent among Hispanics) - drew little media attention. But they caused the alarm in the black community.

The President has fended off criticism that he refuses to target the higher rate of hardship in minority communities caused by the recession and financial crisis. As he told black-oriented Urban Radio Networks in December, "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 civil rights leaders left the White House empty-handed but conceded the President's concern. "You could see that the president felt the gravity of the problem facing not only African Americans, but all Americans," Sharpton said. At the same time, Sharpton added: "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." Sociologist William Julius Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor and director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at Harvard, says it may be time for targeted programs. "If I were advising the President, I would advise the Administration to acknowledge the racial differences and point out the substantial increases that have to be addressed."