Amid signs that black Americans are not sharing in the nation's fledgling economic recovery, President Obama on Wednesday met at the White House with African American leaders, who urged him to adopt a new approach more tightly focused on chronically depressed communities.
While the unemployment rate in January dropped below 10% for the first time in five months, joblessness among blacks increased slightly, to 16.5%.
"We're not looking for race-based programs but, like the president, we want to make sure that everyone is included," the Rev. Al Sharpton said after the meeting. "We need to make sure that those efforts to spur job creation are equally and fairly distributed so that, when the rubber meets the road, we're all in the car."
The meeting came at a time when some black leaders have faulted Obama for not pursuing policies more targeted on the economic woes of their community.
Sharpton and the two other leaders in the meeting -- NAACP President Benjamin T. Jealous and National Urban League chief executive Marc H. Morial -- have been supportive of Obama in the face of those complaints.
Obama remains supremely popular among African Americans. David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, recently surveyed blacks in four states and found that 80% approved of the job he was doing as president.
But even Obama's supporters want to be sure that the jobs legislation being drafted in Congress will be effective in minority-dominated communities with high unemployment.
"More must be done," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) after the January unemployment report was released. "As lawmakers, we must not shy away from targeted public policy that seeks to address the specific and unique issues facing minority communities."
The House in December passed a $154-billion jobs bill that included several provisions sought by the Congressional Black Caucus, such as a $500-million summer jobs program and a $1-billion fund for affordable housing. It also included $26.7 billion to help state and local governments maintain public service jobs -- workforces in which minorities are well represented.
The provisions were not in the draft $85-billion measure that began circulating this week, which focuses mostly on a payroll-tax break for hiring unemployed workers and an extension of safety net programs for the jobless.
The bill was crafted to be lean enough to garner Republican support and move quickly through the Senate, but a Reid aide said Democrats planned for additional jobs bills later this year.
Some of Obama's supporters are concerned that the president has not more directly confronted issues of race, and they see the jobs bill as a good place to start.
Sociologist Michael Eric Dyson took issue with Obama's recent response to complaints that his jobs policies weren't more directly aimed at helping African Americans. Obama had said that he "can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks."
Dyson compared that to issuing the same prescription to everyone who comes to the hospital, when some people obviously arrive much sicker than others.
The jobs bill, argued Dyson, "is a tremendous opportunity for the president to weigh in on critical issues that are of import to the entire nation. It's not just that you want to help blacks. If blacks don't do well, if one significant portion of the population isn't doing well, then the nation doesn't do well."
But two activists who met with Obama and political advisor Valerie Jarrett said they think the White House is rightly attuned to their concerns. The NAACP's Jealous said he showed up to the meeting with a briefing document to leave with Obama and his staff. He left without giving it to anyone, he said, because it no longer seemed necessary. Sharpton said he and the other activists hope to help the president press for provisions in the jobs bill aimed at helping chronically challenged communities.
"The president shares their sense of urgency that we need to move forward with a jobs bill to stimulate job creation," Jarrett said.