February 22, 2017
Marc Morial was raised in a family that understands the importance of education and public service. His father, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, was the first African-American mayor of New Orleans and served two four-year terms; his mother was a teacher. After an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1990, Morial was elected to the Louisiana state senate in 1992 and, two years later, was elected mayor of the Crescent City. In 2003, he was named president and CEO of the National Urban League, one of the oldest civil rights organizations in the country. Under his leadership, the organization has worked to to provide economic empowerment, educational opportunities, and the guarantee of civil rights for the underserved in America. In 2010, to mark its centennial anniversary, the organization launched a call to action focused on achieving aspirational goals in education ("Every American child is ready for college, work and life”), employment ( "Every American has access to jobs with a living wage and good benefits”), housing ("Every American lives in safe, decent, affordable and energy efficient housing on fair terms”), and healthcare ("Every American has access to quality and affordable health care solutions”).
A week or so after the inauguration of Donald Trump as forty-fifth president of the United States, PND spoke with Morial about Trump’s frequent characterization of the nation’s inner cities as urban wastelands and how the new administration might partner with African Americans, the majority of whom did not vote for the president. Morial also addressed the importance of improving educational opportunities for people of color and what it will take to help minority-owned businesses thrive in the Trump era. .
Philanthropy News Digest: Both during his campaign and now as president, Donald Trump has characterized inner cities as urban wastelands plagued by drugs, crime, and social dysfunction. What do you think the president is trying to accomplish when he uses rhetoric like that?
Marc Morial: Well, when he said those things in the campaign, he was appealing to his base. But his characterization of inner cities was narrow, stereotypic, and disparaging. Urban communities are not wastelands, and they're not plagued by drugs, crime, and social dysfunction. They are places with the challenges of drugs, and crime, and other issues, but those challenges are also prevalent in suburban and rural communities. Cities are also places of tremendous human energy, creativity, and assets. They are the economic nerve centers of America. So I found his language to be pejorative, jarring, and I suspect, indicative of his not having spent a lot of time in urban communities. His perspective is probably pretty much informed by stereotypes he sees in the media.
PND: The president has proven adept at using Twitter as a bully pulpit. Is the Urban League doing anything to counter the messages the president puts out via Twitter?
MM: We're very active on social media, and when we encounter messages of public policy we disagree with, we use our social media platform to promote our own message. Of course, the Office of the President is a bully pulpit as well, and this president has chosen to use Twitter versus making frequent public statements or having frequent press conferences, which I think is a new normal. And, of course, his Twitter messages are amplified because they're covered so avidly by the mainstream media. So anything the president puts out there via Twitter is going to be on NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox News, and in newspapers around the country. By the same token, if the president decided to release a handwritten letter on a daily basis, that would be covered by every media outlet. Given that reality, what I would like to see is the mainstream media provide a platform for those whose messages might be in opposition to the president's stated public policy positions.
PND: What do you think a Justice Department led by Jeff Sessions will mean for the work of your organization and other advocacy organizations?
MM: I think all of us are concerned about what a Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department will mean. It's important to recognize that Loretta Lynch — and Eric Holder before her — were very assertive in enforcing civil rights law. That is exactly what we expect any and every attorney general to do. And we're going to hold Jeff Sessions accountable to the kind of enforcement of civil rights laws that Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder championed.
It's important to recognize that the Justice Department not only pursues terrorists and has a role in pursuing "violent crime," it is also is the chief civil rights enforcer in the country and has been that since the 1950s. Jeff Sessions' record in that area concerns us, some of his statements concern us, and so we're going to hold him and his team accountable when it comes to enforcing civil rights law. It is our responsibility to do that.