By Pamela Gentry, Senior Political Producer
July 20, 2009 – The NAACP Convention marked the 100th anniversary of the civil rights organization with a keynote address by President Barack Obama Thursday, July 16 in New York City.
En route, the president invited African-American reporters from Black media organizations to join him on Air Force One at a reporters’ roundtable.
The president was asked about being responsive to African Americans, health care, helping Black businesses, school vouchers and racism. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Kevin Chappell: Republican National Chair Michael Steele criticized you today for attending the NAACP convention, even though he said that you have yet to put forth specific policies to help African Americans. He said that Blacks are growing tired of hearing that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that you need to raise specific plans to help African Americans. How do you respond to that?
President Obama: “Well, first of all, I think Mr. Steele should focus on what the Republican Party is doing. I think that as Chairman, I think — let me put it this way: I think all African Americans would welcome Mr. Steele moving the Republican Party in a direction that was more responsive to the concerns of working people generally, and African Americans in particular.
If you look at our approach over the first six months, the most urgent job for us has been to make sure that the economy gets up back on track, because African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the contraction of the economy. They have been most severely affected by the loss of jobs, foreclosures, loss of health care. They’re most likely to be imperiled by budget cuts at the state levels.”
Cynthia Gordy: Last month the White House held a roundtable discussion on racial health disparities, but remedies for this issue haven’t seemed to really be integrated or incorporated in the general discussion around health care reform. Considering the upcoming health care legislation, is addressing health disparities in the final version of the bill a priority for you?
President Obama: “Well, I think it’s critical that we close some of these gaps. And keep in mind that we’re smack dab in the middle of these big difficult negotiations around health care. Keep in mind that a big chunk of those disparities will be closed if we’ve got health care for every American.”
Herb Boyd: Mr. President, we’re on our way to the NAACP centennial convention. Yesterday I was with Julian Bond and Cornel West. And Mr. Bond said we’re living at a time in which Malia and Sasha can fly on Air Force One; little Black girls in Philadelphia can’t go in a swimming pool. How does that strike you?
President Obama: “Well, obviously we’re concerned about the particular instance of what happened in the pool, and I think that because of the media attention, it’s a reminder that this notion, that somehow because of my election, race is no longer an issue in America, is just not true.
On the other hand — and I’ll address this in my speech to the NAACP — I think that the biggest barriers that young African Americans face today have less to do with blatant discrimination and more to do with long-term structural inequalities that are rooted in slavery and Jim Crow but really manifest themselves in different ways today. It has to do with sub-standard schools and communities where jobs are far and few between, and a lack of access to decent health care for mothers and children all the way through the end of life.”
Pamela Gentry: Mr. President, without the single-payer option on health care reform — for example, right now, in the Medicare program, which works very well, 80 percent of a person’s medical costs are covered for maybe $98 dollars a month, and they pay a Medigap for 20 percent of their coverage that’s almost $200. Do you have a fear that if in fact too much of the private insurers really become the gateway into health care, and your public plan does not become an option, that African Americans and people without the money to pay for insurance will be left out?
President Obama: “Well, look, we don’t yet have a final bill. I’ve said before that there are countries where single-payer plans have worked well. But we have a tradition of an employer-based health care system where the majority, vast majority of people have their health care through private plans offered through their employer.
Now, we’ve still got a lot of work to do on how to make that happen. And the public plan idea is one in which we think if people have a range of options, then there’s nothing wrong with having a government-run option that is competing side by side with private insurers to keep private insurers honest.
But I think we could all feel more confident that private insurers will be doing the right thing if they are having to look over their shoulder and see that a well-managed public plan is out there as an option, as well.”
Derek Dingle: I’m going to ask a question about small business and minority business. In talking to our readers, there’s been some frustration around access to capital and access to contracts. There have been reports that the Treasury has been looking at using TARP funds to support small business. One, I wanted to know, are you moving forward with that proposal? And secondly, will you have targeted aid to minority business such as the aid that was advocated by minority broadcasters in terms of getting bailout funds?
President Obama: “Well, first of all, we are focusing on small businesses already. So the Small Business Administration has increased its guarantees, in terms of lending. It has been much more aggressive in trying to fill the gap as private lending contracted to make sure that small businesses continue to have access. And we’ve seen that program utilized quite heavily.
The bigger problem that we probably are seeing right now in terms of small businesses and minority businesses has less to do with lack of access to capital, although that’s still a serious problem, but it has to do with the overall conditions of the economy and fewer customers and just a tough business environment out there generally.”
April Ryan: There’s a lot of expectation from the Black community — you’re one of them, you’re one of us. And people — granted, this is your first six months — but people are looking for so much from you. Are you feeling the pressure?
President Obama: “In terms of the broader pressures that I feel, I feel enormous pressures as the President of all Americans. And obviously I take great pride in being the first African-American President, but the thing that I can deliver for the African-American community is a successful presidency that is fixing the economy, getting health care for all Americans, moving us in a direction of clean energy, improving our education system. If I do those things, then the African-American community will succeed.”
Roland Martin: You focus a lot on education. And one of the things that you’ve been advocating are charter schools. And you are against school vouchers. Shouldn’t vouchers be a part of the — a piece of the education answers — like private schools, just like charter schools, Catholic schools, public schools, you name it?
President Obama: “When it comes to vouchers, my concern has always been that given the existing funding problems that we have with public schools, that a move toward vouchers would start unraveling in many communities a viable public school option, or would leave the public schools only for those kids whose parents weren’t organized enough to take advantage of private school options. And so I have not been a supporter of vouchers. I understand the arguments for vouchers, and I know that there are some great private schools out there that are doing great work with poor kids.”
My colleagues Kevin Chappell with Ebony/Jet, Cynthia Gordy with Essence, Herb Boyd with The Amsterdam News, Derek Dingle with Black Enterprise, Roland Martin with TV One and April Ryan with Urban Radio Network participated in the roundtable.