While Barack Obama toured rural parts of the Midwest this week, the Congressional Black Caucus drew thousands of people to job fairs in Detroit and Atlanta. Driving the turnout was a sobering fact: The unemployment rate among blacks hovers around 16% Among the most prominent voices in this week’s discussion has been California Rep. Maxine Waters, a former Black Caucus chair. In a series of interviews with TIME, she explains the potential ways to create jobs in cities, the President’s relationship with blacks, and what’s at stake as Congress prepares to consider more cuts in federal spending. Here’s an edited excerpt:
What’s the rationale for the jobs fair. Why now?
We’ve been plagued with high unemployment rates for a long time. But now, it’s a crisis. There have been a number of jobs bills introduced, a lot of discussion. But these bills weren’t going anywhere. The pain level is so high in our communities. So we sat there, devised a way to get the employers who come to Washington to lobby us, to seek everything from tax advantages to who knows what, and say, ‘Why don’t you connect people in these communities with the jobs you have?’ These job fairs are designed to change people’s attitudes about the possibilities of surviving in this economic downturn. It’s been rewarding, and painful. There must have been 8,000 people in Atlanta, wrapped around blocks. People got jobs. For those who didn’t, we hope they learn something about what employers expect.
Your jobs tour came about the same time as President Obama’s tour of three Midwestern states. What’s the takeaway from his trip?
Ours had been planned for weeks. We didn’t know anything about theirs. The president has a style of doing these town hall meetings and talking with people about their concerns, and responding. He went to several states where the unemployment rate was better than the rest of the nation – 6% in Iowa, for instance. He took resources. Take a look at the rural initiative. He committed about $510 million to the production of bio-fuels. Now, we like that kind of approach, and we think it should be used in urban areas.
In what way? What are some specific things the president can do for urban communities?
He was able to connect things they produce and invest in it in some way. We’d love to have concentrated investment for the manufacturing of solar panels, or some of the green jobs we talk about, in cities. We’d love to have investment in small- and minority-owned banks to help expand and create jobs. One thing we could do that would create jobs is find a way to help groups to buy up all the properties that are boarded up. Fix those properties and put them back on the market. It would serve a lot of purposes, providing jobs and housing. There’s a need for infrastructure development, whether it’s your roads and bridges and water systems. Our schools need to be invested in. These classes these kids are going to school in, they’re in awful shape.
There are folks who’ll argue there are limits to what a black president from Chicago’s South Side can do for certain parts of his base. What do you say to that?
He targeted rural communities. Why not urban? What I’ve learned in this political scenario is that somehow, ‘agriculture’ and ‘rural’ is more honorable than ‘urban.’ I don’t know how that kind of feeling and attitude developed.
How concerned are you that issues of particular importance to blacks – short- and long-term solutions to the employment and education crises, for example, are being left out of the conversation?
A lot of this publicity I’m getting around what I said in Detroit has to do with putting us–blacks–back in the conversation. It’s asking African Americans, ‘Do you want to be in the conversation?’ It seems to me, based on some of the reaction, that you don’t want to be in the conversation. You tell the Congressional Black Caucus, ‘Why don’t you get the president to do this, or that?’ You want us to do something about the conditions in the neighborhood. Black Caucus members determined some time ago that any criticism of the president caused a backlash. In Detroit, that’s what I pointed out – the contradiction. That’s when I said, ‘when are you going to unleash us to get into the conversation?’ It was a new way of dealing with a political reality, which doesn’t get dealt with publicly often enough.
Given the issues you just laid out, what’s at stake for blacks heading into 2012?
Let me tell you something: black people support Barack Obama. They want him to get reelected. All they have to do is come to grips with how you support him and criticize him. There may be a new awakening with this president. Perhaps he needs to connect and make sure we’re part of the discussion.
What do you make of comments from Florida Rep. Allen West—the Congressional Black Caucus’ only Republican member–that the Democratic Party is a “21st century plantation” of blacks, and that you’re an overseer?
You know, it’s so ridiculous that it’s hard for me to even respond to. Today, his brother was at the job fair in Atlanta. He’d lost a job. He came up to me, introduced himself. So I said, ‘Did you call your brother?’ He said ‘yes.’ So I said, ‘here you are, coming to me?’
[Black caucus member West responded to Waters’ comments with this statement: “I, like millions of Americans, during these difficult times have stood by a family member, providing suggestions and encouragement as my brother continues to try to find work…. I am encouraged by any job conference which helps individuals find a job, however, the underlying problem remains. The economic policies of President Obama have not set the conditions for job growth, especially in the black community.”]
The 12-member Congressional “super committee” is preparing to consider austerity measures that will likely cut programs disproportionately used by blacks, Latinos and the poor. What’s at stake for the communities you represent?
I hate the idea of the ‘super committee.’ It undermines the ability of elected officials in this country to be truly representative of the people who sent them there. The way this is forged, we lose any way we go. They have the mandate to cut $1.5 trillion. And if they don’t get it done, you get $1.2 trillion across the board. It’s the worst kind of legislating that could be dreamed of. These cuts are going to dig deeply into these cities. We’re in for some hard times.