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Urban League chief: Wealth gap a 'wake-up call'

Associated Press | 7/27/2011, 11:02 a.m.
National Urban League President Marc Morial joins Gov. Deval Patrick and Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of...
National Urban League President Marc Morial joins Gov. Deval Patrick and Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, at the opening of its national conference. Don West

The widening wealth gap between whites and minorities has wiped out gains made over the last 30 years and could foreshadow even more inequality if something isn’t done to address it, National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial said on Tuesday.

Speaking a day before the National Urban League begins its annual convention, Morial said new census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center shows that blacks and Latinos have especially been hit hard by the economic meltdown. He said the report is a “wake-up call” that those communities need more investments for long-term job creation.

“A paramount issue for this nation for the 21st century is to ensure the narrowing and closing of the racial wealth gap,” said Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans. “It has deep social implications. It has deep political implications.”

According to an analysis of new census data, wealth gaps between whites and minorities have grown to their widest levels in a quarter-century, leaving whites on average with 20 times the net worth of blacks and 18 times that of Latinos.

In addition, the wealth of Latino households declined by 66 percent from 2005 to 2009 largely because of the housing bust, the study showed. Black household wealth fell 53 percent.

The study comes as the National Urban League readies to begin its four-day convention, which this year will focus on jobs. Among the scheduled speakers are Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.

The Urban League also is set to release its own study Wednesday on the erosion of the black middle class.

The civil rights group comes to Boston after last holding its national convention in the city 35 years ago. During the group’s last visit, Boston was erupting with busing riots and racial violence over court-ordered school desegregation.

Boston’s City Hall plaza was the site where black businessman Ted Landsmark was photographed during what appeared to be a beating by a white teen holding an American flag.  

Even Boston Celtic great Bill Russell called the city a “flea market of racism,” and blacks remember Boston as a city where its baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, was the last to integrate.

But today, Boston is a city where the majority of residents are people of color. Most students in its school district are Latino. And city officials recently announced that City Hall Plaza will be the site of a planned Bill Russell statue.

Massachusetts also has a black governor, Deval Patrick, who is entering his second term.

“Boston is definitely a different city than it was the last time the Urban League was here,” Morial said. “That’s a major reason why we are back.”

Morial said Patrick personally called him around four years ago to invite the National Urban League to hold a future convention in Boston. Organizers say the convention already has 3,000 registrants.

But while some are praising Boston for evolving and bringing out the welcoming mat for the Urban League, others see it as an opportunity to highlight some of the city’s persistent disparities.

For example, the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement has appealed to the Urban League to address the lack of high-ranking blacks and Latinos in the command staff of the Boston Police Department while the city continues to experience violence in largely minority neighborhoods.

The law enforcement group has reached an impasse with Boston Mayor Tom Menino and Police Commissioner Edward Davis on ways to diversify the department’s command staff.

“Police departments should reflect the ethnic makeup of the communities that they serve,” said Morial, who has known Menino for years.

However, he said one of the goals of the convention is to strengthen the Eastern Massachusetts affiliate of the Urban League so it could address local concerns like those posed by the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement.

Morial said that despite the myriad issues the Urban League can address, the group remains focused on jobs and job creation since it is the source of most inequality.

“We hope that we can be seen that we have research, we have proposals and that we are an organization that goes beyond rhetoric,” he said.

Associated Press