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Congressional Black Caucus Member Discusses Obama Meeting

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we will ask whether separate is ever equal even in houses of worship. Recently, some women from different faith traditions have been asking why a separatism that is permitted in few other areas of American life is tolerated in places of worship. Today, well focus on Islam. Well have two women with different views. Thats our Faith Matters conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with President Obama yesterday, but they said there is no beef.

Representative BARBARA LEE (Democrat, California): Youre hearing grumbles. I dont know where youre hearing grumbles from, but were talking as a Black Caucus today. You see us all here, the majority of Caucus members that are here. And we are going to continue to work on our legislative agenda as the conscience of the Congress to fight for those who have been marginalized and for those who need our help, and things as you know are desperate out there.

MARTIN: That was Representative Barbara Lee, the chair of the Black Caucus talking with the media after the meeting. The congresswoman was no doubt reacting to a swirl of reports of complaints that the nations first African-American president is giving too little attention to the particular concerns of African-Americans who are suffering from unemployment rates 50 percent higher than the already troubling 9.7 rate being experienced by the overall population.

You heard about some of that yesterday on this program in my conversation with broadcast personality, Tavis Smiley, whos convening a meeting in Chicago next week, the presidents hometown, to talk about this.

We have called Congressman Yvette Clarke, the whip for the Congressional Black Caucus and represents New Yorks 11th Congressional District, to talk more about that. She was at that meeting with President Obama. And shes with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Representative YVETTE CLARKE (Democrat, New York): Well, thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: I want to mention here that the president also met yesterday with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus separately. We hope to hear more about that later. I wanted to ask how the meeting with the president came about. I understand the meeting was at his invitation. What did he say he wanted to talk about?

Rep. CLARKE: Well, he reached out to us because last week the caucus in a show of unity did something unprecedented in quite some time, actually. And that is to stand together to vote against what was called the jobs bill last week. We felt that it was important to highlight the fact that while we understand the crisis that small business is facing, the bill fell woefully short in terms of addressing needs in communities of color to really get people employed. And we felt it was a misnomer to call it a jobs bill when in fact it was a tax bill for small business.

Now, Im a true advocate for small business, but there are a couple of things that I have recognized about small business in communities of color. One, theyre not getting access to credit. And as long as that remains the case, an incentive of hiring really becomes ineffectual because if youre unable to expand your business, to expand your inventory, your business is sinking, the last thing that youre going to be able to take advantage of is a tax credit.

MARTIN: So, I take your point. This is the second time that the caucus had -earlier the caucus took a stand in the Financial Services Committee and boycotted a vote there for the same reason. Is your concern that the president himself is not attuned to these issues, that his staff is not attuned to these issues? What do you think is going on here?

Rep. CLARKE: I think that what we are asking for is that the president use his bully pulpit to look at a more far-reaching, deeper-penetrating jobs initiative. We go back to our districts every weekend, at least I do, and many of the members of the caucus do. And the level of unemployment in our communities is unacceptable.

And so when we stand up to vote for stimulus packages and jobs bills that we know dont include the types of initiatives that really reach the people who are hardest hit, we feel obligated to bring this to everyones attention and to have that included in the discussions and eventual legislation that comes forth, so that we make sure that the focus is not merely on business, but that its a two-pronged approach that includes those who are in our communities seeking to get back into the job market.

MARTIN: Well, it sounds like there is grumbling then, or grumbling - I dont know if you like that word - but there is discontent among members of the caucus with the approach that the White House. And from what Im hearing, you say the congressional leadership is also taking. So why didnt Congresswoman Lee just say that?

Rep. CLARKE: I think that - we are working in a spirit of cooperation, and we wanted to really emphasize the need going forward to do some innovative things. To, one, create new jobs in the community; two, establish training and apprenticeship types of programs that at least get our people primed for the new jobs. You know, we are voting and we understand the need for the green revolution thats taking place in our communities.

We recognize that there are infrastructure projects taking place. Another area that we focused on was the need to include women and minority-owned businesses that tend to hire people of color at a much higher rate than mainstream firms do. We felt it was important to bring to the attention of the president of the United States as well as the congressional leadership that were not meeting the mark in that regard.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you before you go that theres been this to-ing and fro-ing on the airwaves between different individuals like the Reverend Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley, the broadcaster who - Tavis Smiley making the argument that the president needs to have a more focused black agenda. And the Reverend Sharpton saying that he does, but tactically it doesnt make sense for him to say that he does. Where do you come out on that?

Rep. CLARKE: Its a rock and a hard place type of conversation thats taking place. The president recognizes the challenges that all Americans face in this economic climate. And hes the president of every one in the United States of America. But I think its also important that those of us who are on the ground, who have the information and recognize where legislation is not making the mark that we have an obligation to make sure that the president is conscious of it, that hes aware of it. And I think that its important that those of us who are of color that we advocate in the same way and thats what the CBC is doing.

MARTIN: Yvette Clarke represents New Yorks 11th district in the United States Congress. Shes both a whip for the Congressional Black Caucus and the senior whip for the Democratic Caucus and she joined us from the Capitol. Congresswoman, we thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rep. CLARKE: Thank you for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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