CBC Chairman Mum On Obama's Response to Joblessness In Black Community

05/13/2011 04:11 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) stumbled for words Friday when asked why President Barack Obama isn’t doing more to lift the black community out of exceedingly high unemployment.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) told The Huffington Post that CBC Members expressed “the frustration of our constituents” over high unemployment to Obama during a Thursday meeting at the White House. The Labor Department puts unemployment at 16.1 percent in the black community, but Cleaver said the number is more like 28 percent when factoring in “99ers,” or people who have exhausted all of their regular and extended unemployment benefits.

“All you’ve got to do is come into any black area and you can see that,” he said.

In the lead-up to the meeting with Obama, the CBC used its Facebook page to ask supporters which priorities lawmakers should bring up with the president. The response was “unbelievable,” Cleaver said. “I’d say 97 percent said to ask about jobs.”

CBC Members shared that statistic with the president and asked him to do more to help vulnerable communities hit the hardest by the recession. But his response wasn’t what some were looking for: Obama maintained that he would continue focusing on boosting the economy more broadly.

“We think that perhaps the federal government ought to move with some intentionality in dealing with high unemployment,” Cleaver said. Asked why he thought Obama was reluctant to take a more targeted approach to helping minority communities, the CBC chairman stammered.

“Um … Uh … You ask hard questions,” Cleaver said. “Maybe some of the other members will be more candid. I mean, I’m the chair.”

Asked if he had no thoughts on the matter, the CBC chairman replied, “I didn’t say that.”

Cleaver eventually said, in delicately worded comments, that the only reason he could think of is that Obama “actually believes that attacking the recession” in a general way is the best way to lift vulnerable communities out of high unemployment.

“Either I’ve got to believe that he believes what he's saying, even if I disagree, or all the alternatives are bad,” he said.

On her way out of the White House meeting, Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) said Obama “knows the concerns” of CBC members because he has heard lawmakers describe how “our districts are hurting.” But she pushed back on the idea that he isn’t doing enough to help the black community.

“I think he’s committed to helping us, to helping everybody," she said.

The White House called unemployment rates among African Americans "unacceptably high" in its readout of Thursday's meeting. The readout cites Obama's focus on "supporting economic policies that help the hardest hit" and points to federal programs aimed at helping low-income youth find jobs and tax incentives for investments in economically distressed areas.