10 Questions: About Imus, Civil Rights & Katrina

For some perspective on recent civil rights issues--from the Don Imus controversy to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina--we turned to Marc Morial, the President of the National Urban League, for this week's 10 Questions.

Founded in 1910, The National Urban League is one of America's oldest and largest civil rights groups, with a particular focus on helping African-Americans enter the economic mainstream.

1. Mr. Morial, you were one of the first civil rights leaders to say "Imus must go" when the radio host made his offensive remarks last
month. Did the media companies that dropped his show do enough to set an example for the way racist and sexist remarks should be handled?

The media companies that dropped Imus's show took an important first step. They stood up with the Rutgers women's basketball team and against the abuse of public airwaves to communicate coarse, disparaging and demeaning language about college women who are scholar athletes.

2. So often when we think we'll have a "national conversation" about
Something, the issue passes and the conversation never happens. Do
You think we are having--or we will have--a conversation about race
Following the Imus incident?

We have not had the national conversation about race and the underlying social and economic conditions that create disparities in education, jobs, healthcare and quality of life. Our attention span is too short, and the Imus incident compels the media to make a long-term commitment to promote national conversations that we truly need to have.

3. Very quickly, the Imus controversy broadened into a discussion not just about Imus's language but about the country's language--and the Language of rap music in particular. Do you agree with Russell Simmons about banning those three words from rap music? And what do
you think it says about our culture that the free market seems to reward that kind of language?

While I do not think we can tolerate disparaging language about women in our music, there are still many radio talk jocks who, like Imus, have made it a habit to abuse the public airwaves with racist and sexist humor. Russell Simmons makes a great point. I would like to see more rap artists create music and lyrics that are instruments of social and economic change. Some already do, but we need more voices and a movement towards such change.

4. What can civil rights groups like yours do to reach out to both
white Americans and black Americans who are using offensive language?

The National Urban League and other civil rights groups will continue to oppose in principle offensive language whether it comes from talk show jocks or musicians. I, however, feel very strongly that we need to encourage Americans of all ethnicities to understand that racial disparities remain one of the nation's important challenges. Avoiding discussion of them is not the approach we should take.

5. On April 17, the Urban League issued a report called The State of
Black America--which focused particularly on the plight of African-
American men. Can you describe some of the recommendations it made?

Some of recommendations are as follows:
1. Mandatory early childhood education for every child in America. Our statistics show that it works to invest in children in their early years.
2. We believe that a longer school day that provides children with more time to learn and that integrates music, art, physical education and individualized instruction will raise achievement levels of not only black boys but all children. All-male schools, like Eagle Academy and Enterprise School should be tried.
3. A greater investment in programs to help high school dropouts secure their GEDs and job skills is crucial.
4. Bring back the Federal Summer Jobs Program right away. Our children learn from early work experiences.
5. Parents must instill the value of education into their children early and often. They can obtain a copy of State Of Black America at www.nul.org.

6. Your group is focused on "empowering African-Americans to enter
the economic and social mainstream." How much more progress needs to
be made in that area--and can ordinary citizens do anything to help?

Our State of Black America's equality index for 2007 shows that when comparing the economic, educational and health conditions of black Americans versus white Americans, the status of African Americans is 73 percent of that of their white counterparts. We cannot pretend that the playing field is level. We have made great progress, and I hope that ordinary citizens would support community-based groups, civil rights organizations, elected officials and corporations that promote diversity and economic opportunity.

7. You obviously have a unique perspective on New Orleans--and
Katrina. And you've stressed the importance of local officials--as
well as the federal and state recovery authority--regaining
credibility and regaining people's trust. How well have they done on
that score?

I have been extremely disappointed with the sheer lack of coordination between local, state and federal officials when it comes to the recovery of New Orleans after Katrina. Progress has been too slow, and there has been too much public and private finger-pointing. The recovery is being sustained on the backs and the determination of average citizens who love New Orleans and all that it represents. Only concrete results will restore credibility and gain trust. There needs to be less talk and more action.

8. One of the most amazing revelations over the last week is the fact
that only a fraction of the $1 billion that foreign governments
pledged to Katrina relief was ever collected--and that only $40
million has been used for the victims. How do you think that happened?

Secretary of State Rice should immediately contact the foreign governments that pledged money to Katrina relief efforts so that the money is collected and sent directly to the victims, where it was intended. There should be congressional hearings to determine who dropped the ball and hold those at fault accountable. There is no excuse for this nation to turn down its international allies when they offer help in a time of great need.

9. Your group reports that black homeownership slipped from 50
percent to 47.9 percent from 2004 to 2006 largely because of
foreclosures. What role do subprime loans play in this? And whose
responsibility is it when consumers sign up for too much debt--the
lender's or the borrower's?

What concerns me is that a disproportionate number of African Americans have been steered into sub-prime loans with high interest rates and fees
through aggressive and targeted marketing that may have been confusing and misleading. The issue is not that consumers have borrowed money. It's that they have been forced to pay higher interest rates and fees than others who may be similarly situated. The National Urban League's Homebuyer's Bill of Rights, which can be viewed at www.nul.org, offers some solutions to the sub-prime loan issue and the rise in foreclosures.

10. Finally, what policy ideas do you hope the 2008 presidential
candidates run on?

I want to see each presidential candidate present a comprehensive plan for American cities -- whether big or small -- that focuses on jobs, housing, small business growth and expansion, local school systems and the children. I hope that this campaign goes beyond sound bite politics and drive-by campaigns. We want serious discussion about the difficult domestic issues that need to be made a high priority.