Facing the Heat When There is No Place to Hide
Open a copy of The State of Black America 2005: Prescriptions for Change and you'll be greeted by the in-your-face foreword of Marc H. Morial. Morial writes:
"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
So goes the old saying.
But what if the rest of the house is as hot as the kitchen?
What if the heat is turned up high in every room?
What if there's no hiding place?"
For Morial, president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League, publishers of the annual State of Black America report and one of the nation's oldest and most venerable civil rights organizations, the heat is turned up high in every room and there's no hiding place. If you're Black and living in America, he says, you can't hide from the "heat" of ensuring that all of our children are adequately prepared to participate competitively in the school system, that access to health care and other quality-of-life services in our communities is improved, that gains under the 1965 Voting Rights are protected and expanded, that civil liberties are not eroded and that we exercise the requisite discipline and innovation to build wealth for ourselves-individually and communitywide.
A Role for All
The League has its own way of addressing these challenges, Morial says. Indeed, he is adamant that the organization not be lumped together with other civil rights groups, even though most of them are bound together by a similar mission. "To fight a war-the war for justice, the war for equality, the war for opportunity-you need an army, you need the navy, you need the air force, you need the marines... So we don't see these other organizations as competitors and we view people's efforts to see them as competitors as an effort to throw wedges and divides," Morial says. "It doesn't mean that on every tactic and every issue we stand together but we are bound together by this very important mission."
Two years into his tenure at the helm of the League, Morial defends the organization's distinguishing style as hands-on. It's a style to which he is accustomed. Before heading the League, he served two terms as mayor of New Orleans. He left with a 70 percent approval rating, thanks, in no small part, to his hands-on, services-oriented administration, during which crime fell by 60 percent and a bond issue that provided $400 million in infrastructure improvements was green-lighted. Mayor Morial's community reinvestment initiatives created 15,000 new home owners, improved 200 miles of streets and built 7,000 hotel rooms.
Prior to serving as mayor, Morial, an attorney, worked on the U.S. Supreme Court case Chisom v. Roemer, which established that the Voting Rights Act should be applied to the selection of judges. That decision led to the election of Louisiana's first African-American judge.
Period of Transformation
Morial brings this same hands-on attitude to the League. He is bent on keeping the League as relevant and effective today as it was in the past. "We are in a period of transformation now. That transformation is designed for us to position ourselves, our work, our message to meet the needs of the 21st century," he says. He has outlined an "empowerment agenda" for his tenure at the League that includes five key areas-education and youth; economic empowerment; health and quality of life; civic engagement; and civil rights and racial justice. "In each of the five areas, we try to do programs, we try to do research, we try to empower through education and advocacy. So the five-point agenda has helped us focus. We are saying we can't be all things to all people but we are focused on five areas," he says.
The League has already delivered on Morial's empowerment. The Hip-Hop Reader, the Black Executive Exchange Program and college scholarships awards totaling more than $10 million are hallmarks of the education and youth programs. In the area of economic empowerment, the League has helped some 200,000 either secure jobs, become home owners or access new business opportunities in the last year alone, with funding for economic programs totaling more than $60 million.
On health matters, the League works with organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address ailments that plague Black communities, notably diabetes and obesity. In the area of civic engagement, the League stresses the importance of the right to vote as a prerequisite for effecting change in Black communities. Its program, COPS, is a forum for addressing police brutality and accountability issues, while its Commission on the Black Male addresses the relatively high level of incarceration among young Black males.
State of Black America
In one of its most important services, the League provides research on the economic and social health of the Black community, showing through The State of Black America how Blacks compare to their white counterparts. "The publication is geared towards anyone who is interested in serious conversation-serious conversation about the issues of race; serious conversation about the state of American cities; serious conversation about the state of the nation," Morial says.
Perhaps the most informative and, indeed, the most troubling aspect of the report is found in Appendix II, which is also available separately as the 2005 Equality Index. Here, there are no interpretations, no eloquent passages about the state of Black American. Instead, pages of charts show, in stark numbers, that Blacks in America still do not enjoy the full measure of their American citizenship. While the index remains virtually unchanged from last year, Blacks increased the number of college and advanced degrees earned, although at a slower rate than whites. The index also shows that poor African-Americans are more likely to have health insurance than poor whites, and that African-Americans have made huge strides in closing the digital divide, posting an 18-point improvement over last year in Internet access.
The reality is, however, that African-Americans are lagging in all five of the Empowerment Agenda categories. They are sentenced to death four times more often than whites and receive an average jail sentence that is six months longer than the sentence given whites for the same crime. On average, African-Americans are at least twice as likely to die, whether from disease, accident or homicide, than whites at any given age, and post higher rates of obesity, substance abuse and AIDS.
The greatest disparities appear to be in economics. Black males earn only 70 percent of white males' salaries; home ownership among Blacks is at 48.1 percent versus 75.4 percent for whites; Blacks are denied mortgages and home improvement loans at almost twice the rate of whites. The median net worth for African-Americans stands at $6,100 as opposed to $67,000 for whites. "Our work has just begun... It is the responsibility of African-Americans, individuals as well as groups, to forge a new, more economically secure status for Black America," Morial writes in The State of Black America.
Marshaling Our Assets
The report offers prescriptions for forging that status: raise the minimum wage to reflect inflated costs of living; reduce down payments and make mortgages more available and affordable to all; expand job training and career counseling with a focus on young urban males. For their part, Blacks should focus on savings, investing and estate planning; support African-American institutions and stay active in the political process. "There are demands we have to place on the corporate system and there are demands we have to place on ourselves," Morial says. Some of the prescriptions may seem lofty, even unattainable, but, Morial notes, "if we just define a prescription by what we are sure we could get done, we would never move ahead. We would be caught in a self-limiting reality... We have assets. We have more educated African-Americans than ever before...700 Black state legislatures, 43 members of Congress. Our job is to marshal our assets."
The League, too, must marshal its assets to meet today's needs, Morial says. "We are working with regard to rebranding, empowering communities, changing lives. We work to raise our profile. We want to create an image and reality that we are an action-oriented organization," he says. How much time will Morial devote to the League? "One thing I have learned is that you can't do things overnight in this position. To have an impact takes time. But the other thing is that I think you can't and you shouldn't hang on forever," he says.
By Soroya Brantley