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TSD probes for President’s African-American mission

  • Written by Tony Jones

President Barack Obama has issued a 45-page report detailing how his administration has addressed problems in the African-American community, and in an exclusive interview with the New Tri-State Defender, White House Director for African American Media Kevin Lewis provides insight into the administration’s goals and also remarks made by the president.

The report, entitled “The President’s Agenda And The African American Community,” was unveiled at the African-American Policy in Action Leadership Conference held Nov. 9 at the White House’s South Court Auditorium. (To read the report follow the link at the bottom of the story.)

Three members of the Tennessee Black Caucus attended the conference: District 15-Knox County Rep. Joe Armstrong (President-Elect, National Caucus of Black Legislators); District 16 Rep. Lois DeBerry (Chairman, State Legislators Leaders Foundation); and District 87 Rep. Karen Camper (Vice Chair, Region 4, National Black Caucus of State Legislators).

The first on-the-record policy initiative of its kind by a sitting president, the report notes how the president’s policies have directly benefited African-American concerns now and what the administration hopes to accomplish in the future.

Elected officials and business and civic leaders from throughout the nation will be tapped to identify ideas needs and policy goals designed to have positive impact in the African-American community.

 Kevin Lewis

“We wanted this conference and this report to highlight these accomplishments and to engage the pubic to bring forth ideas that can be put to use in the future,” said Lewis.

The administration is now moving into the follow-through process. This past Friday (Nov. 25), the first of a series of conference calls was convened with Jon Carson, director of the Office of Public Engagement.  

The process will continue over the coming months. A second conference call is scheduled for Friday (Dec. 2) with Mark Zuckerman, deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Conference attendees signed on to specific initiative teams and were asked to arrange meetings in their regions pertaining to their selections.

A question posed in a press statement issued by the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) recounts how some critics in the African-American community, notably talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West, have criticized President Obama as being deathly silent on an agenda for the African-American community.

Was one of the goals of the conference an attempt to silence these critics, especially with the 2012 presidential race looming?

Lewis said as an official White House employee he cannot answer in terms of election campaigning, but said the conference was only a continuation of an on-going dialogue the Obama administration has had with African-American media.

“People are hurting out there and especially African Americans and we’ve done so much and spent so much time working on policy that is easy for people to think of it as a political move, but it is our duty as a staff to let people know what he is doing,” said Lewis.

“We’ve taken various ways to get the president’s message out. Just last week we had an (Internet) panel with Interactive One that included members of the community, The Griot, Black Planet, everyday citizens, members of several civil rights organizations and just everyday people. The president has personally been on “The Steve Harvey Show,” “The Tom Joyner Show” and many others. And over the past several years we’ve consistently met with many organizations (NAACP, Urban League, others) specifically to discuss how the president’s agenda has affected the African-American community in these first years,” he said.

”The conference process is to continue that dialogue and we want everyday people to be heard and get involved. We want the report spread to the general public and we want responses from citizens and good ideas we can follow through on.”

President Obama spoke to the conference at the midday break.

“Obviously, we have enormous challenges,” the president said. “The unemployment rate in the African-American community has always been higher than the norm. And since the unemployment rate generally is high right now, it is way too high when it comes to the African-American community…we’ve got a lot of work to do.

“Some of these strategies are longer term – for example, all the good work we’ve done in education – the payoff is not going to be tomorrow. It’s not going to be next year. It’s going to be five years from now and 10 years from now as we steadily see improvement in our public schools.”

President Obama detailed the American Jobs Act, how further support for small business is a key issue in African-American communities, and talked about the push to make health care widely available.

“We also want to find ways where we don’t have to wait for Congress; where (there) are initiatives that we can take right now, administratively, that would make a difference in the communities that all of you represent. This gathering is for you to share your best ideas, your best practices. What are things we can get implemented in the next three months? Where are areas where you see a potential difference being made?”

He closed with an excerpt from his speech dedicating the King memorial in Washington.

“We have been through tougher times before. Our parents have been through tougher times. And what we also know is that if we are persistent, if we are unified, and we remain hopeful, then we’ll get through these tough times and better days lie ahead.”

Fast Facts: ‘The President’s Agenda And The African American Community’

In his interview about the presidential conference, White House Director for African American Media Kevin Lewis remarked that the president’s trip here to salute Booker T. Washington High School’s win in the Race To The Top resonated in the White House for several weeks.

“I really hate I missed that trip. It was really something here; very emotional, for a long time.”

Here are a few points from the president’s report concerning education:

• The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act provided direct support for more than 820,000 additional Pell Grant recipients over the next decade – including more than 200,000 African-American students. This landmark investment, coupled with funding provided in the Recovery Act, and the President’s first two budgets, doubles the total amount of funding available for Pell Grants since the President took office.

• As of 2009, 80 percent of African-American undergraduates took out loans to pay for college, as opposed to 64 percent of white students and 67 percent of Hispanic students.

• Almost half of all African-American undergraduate students receive federal Pell Grant awards. In the 2007-08 school year alone, 1.3 million African-American students received aid in the form of Pell Grants.

• For families struggling with the cost of college, President Obama also expanded the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), and extended the credit through 2012 in the bipartisan tax agreement at the end of last year. Now the AOTC provides up to $2,500 per year for four years of college tuition for families earning up to $160,000.

• The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, signed by the President, provided $850 million for HBCUs and $150 million for PBIs in mandatory funding over ten years. The dollars can be used to renew, reform and expand programming to ensure that students at these colleges and universities are given every chance to live up to their full potential.

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