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Marc Morial, President/CEO, National Urban League: Inner Cities and Advocacy in Trump-Era America

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?

Mark_morial_for_PhilanTopicMarc 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.

PND: In light of the protests that have taken place in response to the president's executive order regarding refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations, how can organizations like yours support the protests and maybe deflect some of the heat the protestors are likely to feel in the future?

MM: What's so interesting about the activism we're seeing around the country is that it's organic and being driven by young people. It's happening spontaneously, and that demonstrates, in part, the power of social media. That said, I think many of us who have a long history of public protest and working to influence public policy will continue to encourage people to be assertive with respect to their First Amendment right while urging them not to fall into the trap of violence. We must do whatever we can to make sure that peaceful marches are not infiltrated by individuals who throw bricks, who smash windows, who hide their faces, and in general are committed to the cause of violence, leaving march organizers to explain and account for their violent actions. But let's be clear: people are looking for ways to participate in the civic process that go beyond voting, they are looking to assert their point of view in solidarity with others who believe and share their thinking. And that's why you're see these sorts of organic protests, this organic activism, at this moment.

PND: The Urban League is about more than activism. It has long focused, for example, on the gap in access to capital for minority-owned businesses. Do you expect the new administration to be an ally in your efforts to close that gap and help small, minority-owned businesses create jobs?

MM: It's a very important question. But it's part of a larger question, which is, Are we going to be aggressive and assertive in working to ensure that the federal government's budgetary commitment to these types of programs continues? At the moment, the administration's budgetary priorities are unclear. When it comes to small business, the key players are Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce; Linda McMahon, the new head of the Small Business Administration; and the president's team of advisors in the White House. We plan to advocate very loudly to make sure the issue of small and minority-owned business growth and development is going to be part of any job-creation strategy put forward by the administration. It may be an area where there is opportunity for collaboration, but it's still too early to tell.

PND: What are minority-owned businesses looking for in their relationship with the federal government?

MM: When it comes to minority-owned businesses, regulatory issues are not their main priority. The main issue is access, particularly access to capital and contracts. Whenever I speak to a group of business people and they talk to me about regulatory burdens, I always ask them which regulations they're talking about. Rules about clean air? Clean water? Consumer protection? What are you talking about that causes an undue burden? And, typically, I get a lot of blank stares when I ask that question. Yes, we need to look at anything that puts an undue burden on small business. But a blanket indictment and rejection of policies and regulations designed to keep our air clean, our water clean, that protect consumers and investors from fraud doesn't really make sense to a lot of people.

Again, for minority-owned businesses, the concern is access to capital, access to contracts, access to opportunity. Those are the issues for which minority-owned businesses are seeking a champion in the White House and in federal agencies. And what I will say to anyone in the administration who is willing to listen is that minority-owned businesses are a great bet if what you really want to do is create jobs, especially in our cities.

PND: This past fall, in partnership with United Negro College Fund, the Urban League published a report titled Building Better Narratives in Black Education, which noted, among other things, the National Assessment of Educational Progress finding that only 7 percent of African-American students performed at or above proficiency in NEAP's grade 12 math exam, compared to 32 percent for white students. How concerned are you by findings like that, and what is the Urban League doing to address the achievement gap for African-American students?

MM: Addressing the achievement gap is central to everything we do in education. It's central to our public policy work at the national level, state, and local levels. It's also central to our programming. A lot of that programming is focused on the afterschool space and is designed to assist young people with reading, math, and leadership skills by providing them additional academic support and assistance in their efforts to finish high school so they're prepared to go to college. We think that's crucial for closing the achievement gap.

In the public policy space, we have been a strong voice for high standards that are consistent but that also help serve to close the resource equity gap. If you don't close the resource equity gap — and maintain high, consistent standards — you can't even identify the achievement gap. You can have achievement gaps and not even know they exist, or know where they exist.

PND: How can philanthropy help fill that gap?

MM: The philanthropic support for resource equity has been focused mainly on supporting charter schools. But traditional public schools are where 85 percent of young people in this country are educated. Filling the resource equity gap means addressing student-teacher ratios. It means boosting access to extracurricular activities — sports, music, drama club — the types of things that really inspire and motivate children to participate and succeed. It involves things like science labs, reading coaches, all the additional supports that a school with lots of resources has. It also involves teacher compensation. Many, many communities, even within the same county, suffer from wide differentials in teacher compensation. And too often that means good teachers end up leaving inner-city school districts for the suburbs because the pay is better. So, resource equity affects our ability to close the achievement gap, which is why we can never talk about accountability without talking about resource equity. The two go hand-in-hand.

PND: In a different report issued this month by the Equality of Opportunity Project, it was found that the percentage of low-income students attending Ivy League and other elite colleges has been flat since 2000 — and not at a particularly high level. The report also found that low-income students' access to so-called mid-tier public institutions has fallen sharply since 2000. What is the Urban League doing to improve access for African-American students to institutions of higher education with a track record of boosting social mobility?

MM: I attended an Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania. My sister attended Yale, and I have a brother who attended the University of Chicago. So, we are part and parcel of the commitment Ivy League institutions made in the last quarter of the twentieth century — primarily the 1970s and '80s — to open their doors to low-income students. But here's the challenge today: many low-income students do not have access to the test preparation coaches, advance placement courses, and expensive “enrichment” activities that so many middle- and upper-class kids take advantage of. Parents will spend lots of money to ensure that their children get a high ACT or SAT score, thus enhancing their ability to get into Ivy League schools and other elite institutions. Test scores and grade-point averages are part of what I call the ratings game that universities have been forced to play. To perform well in these annual ratings, like the one put out by U.S. News and World Report, universities fight to attract students with the highest test scores and GPAs. And that works against low-income students who don't have access to test prep courses and expensive tutors and whose families couldn't afford them even if they did have access. What's the answer? For starters, I think it's important for all of us involved in the system to sit down and re-think some of the assumptions built into the system and admission processes that today we take for granted.

But it's more than that. Elite institutions, which in many cases have need-blind admissions policies, really need to think about refocusing admissions on racial diversity, including socioeconomic diversity. When I attended the University of Pennsylvania, the African-American students were from a variety of backgrounds. Some came from low-income backgrounds or grew up in public housing. Some came were from middle-class back­grounds. There really was a great deal of diversity within the minority population. Today, however, it's more common that minority students at Ivy League institutions come from solely middle-class backgrounds. Elite schools need to focus on this problem to a much greater extent than they have, as well as on the overall racial diversity of the student body. I would like to see a reaffirmation of these institutions' commitment to racial diversity and justice, and they need to be open to readjusting and recalibrating their admission processes for a new reality.

PND: We're only a few weeks into the Trump administration, but do you see anything that gives you hope the next four years will be a time of opportunity for people of color?

MM: There's one element in what President Trump has talked about that may provide some opportunities for shared interest, and that is the large infra­structure program he's been promoting. He's also talked about a plan to address the challenges of America's inner cities. If there is a sincere effort on the part of the administration to follow through on those promises — not with experiments, but with proven, tested approaches that result in real investment in those communities, and investment in the people who live in those communities — then there may be shared interests where we can work together. I certainly hope so. We will resist any rollbacks but continue to remain open to any areas to find shared interests.

Matt Sinclair spoke with Morial in January. The transcript of that conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

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