Job worries for Obama at NAACP

President Obama’s speech to the NAACP on Thursday will be an emotional and historic moment, but some members of the civil-rights group are looking for details on how the first black president will reduce unemployment rates for African-Americans.

Obama’s address will be a homecoming of sorts for many NAACP members who didn’t think they would see a black man in the White House in their lifetime.

Yet some NAACP officials say the president’s general approach to the economy and unemployment has not gone far enough to address the specific concerns of the black community.

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With billions of dollars in economic assistance moving through the Treasury Department, NAACP officials and black-owned finance firms are alarmed by the lack of black-owned businesses being contracted to administer the bailouts.

One source said many in the black community have expressed frustration with the administration over the number of traditional Wall Street firms handling the funds’ disbursement.

Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, said the issue “has been raised, and they’ve agreed to look into it.”

Shelton said many of the firms chosen were “left over from the last administration,” but noted the NAACP will be “watching closely” as Treasury moves forward in contracting firms.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to comment on the specifics of the speech because he hadn’t seen a final draft, but he did say the president would touch on healthcare, the economy and education — issues he said are dear to “Black America” as well as the country as a whole.

The White House Office of Public Engagement is scheduled to hold a meeting with black owners of financial institutions on Thursday. An Obama administration aide said the meeting is part of a series of get-togethers. It was unclear at press time if the concerns with the Treasury Department would be discussed.

Even as NAACP officials acknowledge the president will receive a hero’s welcome Thursday on the 100th anniversary of the nation’s oldest civil-rights organization, some say they want to hear the president give details on how his home foreclosure plan will help renters and how his education plan will aid poor and black communities.

And with black unemployment rates nearly 5 percent higher than the national average, Obama’s standard line that growing the national economy as a whole “will lift all boats” won’t cut it with some NAACP members.

“We heard that phrase from Ronald Reagan, and it isn’t necessarily so,” said NAACP board member Amos Brown.

Brown said that he and others “would expect of [Obama] the same as we would any other president — to be involved in specifics and not generalities.”

At a late-April primetime press conference marking his 100 days in office, the president called on a reporter from Black Entertainment Television, who noted the disparity between the national unemployment numbers and those of minorities, noting that “in New York City, for example, the black unemployment rate for men is near 50 percent.”

After the reporter asked Obama for “specific policies,” Obama replied with his “raise all boats” line, explaining that the stimulus package and other of his policy initiatives go to places that need the most aid.

Obama said “that probably disproportionately impacted those communities that had lost their jobs.”

“And unfortunately, the African-American community and the Latino community are probably overrepresented in those ranks,” the president said.

If Obama doesn’t get more specific than that on Thursday night, Brown said, he “will hear from [NAACP President Benjamin] Jealous and the leadership of the organization.”

Shelton said he wants to hear “very clearly” what the president’s plan is to address minority unemployment, but he added that “we don’t want to get into a discussion about whose pain hurts more.”

While applauding Obama’s initiatives on the economy as they pertain to Wall Street and Main Street, Shelton and others want to hear the president talk about what he’s doing for “Back Street.”

“Disproportionately, there are even more African-Americans that live on Back Street and are aspiring to live on Main Street,” Shelton said.

However, Obama is not expected to take questions from NAACP members after his speech.

Jamal Simmons, a prominent African-American Democratic strategist, said that many in the NAACP need to remember that Obama is the president of all Americans.

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“The thing that’s difficult for many in the traditional leadership to grasp is that this is a president in office who does not look at this in a piecemeal fashion,” Simmons said.

To that end, Obama’s challenge is to make clear that his overall policies do include programs specifically targeted to help black communities, Simmons said.

Shelton said that there is a recognition within the NAACP that “one of the greatest parts of the process is having a seat at the table.”

“We didn’t have to knock down the door — we get a phone call with an invitation opening the door up to a seat at the table,” Shelton said.

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