BALTIMORE – About 150 people gathered at Morgan State University Friday to pose questions, concerns and complaints at a contingent of Obama administration officials promoting the president’s “An America Built to Last” platform.
The event—the fourth and final “White House African American Regional Policy Forum”— vacillated in tone between the Administration’s buoyant promotion and subdued skepticism from audience members.
On the one hand, administration officials touted a number of initiatives—from boosting Pell grants to enabling mortgage modifications—that they contend staved off worse economic woes than what they say would have otherwise befallen many African-Americans in the aftermath of the recession that commenced toward the tail end of the Bush administration.
And anything progressive the president tried to do but couldn’t get done legislatively over the past three and a half years—from summer jobs for youths to bringing more broadband to urban and rural communities—they blamed on Republican opposition in Congress.
On the other hand, audience members lamented about an array of problems that they say are continually making it hard for African-Americans to survive and succeed even as the first term of the nation’s first Black president draws to a close.
Based on audience testimony, the problems seem to persist whether it involves young African-Americans on urban streetscapes or older African-Americans on America’s business landscape.
For instance, one speaker said Black youth in this city experience so many pat-downs as a result of racial profiling by the police that they’ve come to incorporate it into their existence and expect frisks as an everyday part of life.
A business leader lamented that Black businesses have a hard time accessing venture capital because their credit scores—already low in many cases—go down every time they try for a loan and get denied.
“It’s pitiful at times,” said Wayne R. Frazier Sr., president of the Maryland Washington Minority Contractors Association Inc., who said he watched one minority business owner’s credit score drop 75 points in a half hour simply because the business owner had made a number of inquiries on possible loans.
Frazier said legislation should be drafted to prevent credit scores from being lowered due to credit checks.
“That could be a change that would not help just African-Americans but all Americans,” Frazier said. “We shouldn’t be held in a negative way just because we’re seeking credit.”
Education, from K-12 to post-secondary, came up repeatedly at the forum, which gave administration officials a chance to tout what they were already doing that was in line with the stronger investments or innovation called for by several audience members or to explain why the status quo could not be maintained.
Most education questions were fielded by William Jawando, deputy director of Strategic Partnerships and Special Assistant to the Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.
Dr. Stephanie Miller, senior data analyst at the Council for Opportunity in Education, asked why the administration has cut back on federal TRIO programs, such as Upward Bound and the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program. COE is a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for federal TRIO programs, which are meant to help “disadvantaged” individuals prepare for and succeed in college.
“If we are trying to increase the proportion of students with a higher education degree, we need to focus on low-income students,” Miller said in reference to the Obama administration’s goal to have the United States with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
“All those programs are very important,” Jawando responded.
Javando said that, while the administration has maintained support for TRIO programs, “the reason why they haven’t gone up higher is we’re working with a difficult Congress.”
When a different member of the audience wanted to know how organizations could access funds for education innovations based on “different models than what we have,” Jawando pointed out that the administration has invested heavily in “Race to the Top” and the “Investment in Innovation” or “i3” Fund.
“Race to the Top is not traditional,” Jawando said. And i3, he said, is set up “to do exactly what you just said, identify, scale up and develop promising practices in the field.”
Friday’s forum also featured administration officials from the U.S. departments of Treasury, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development.
In kicking off the forum, Morgan State University president David Wilson said “we cannot think of a more appropriate venue to have this conversation than Morgan.”
As has become standard during his public speeches, Wilson shared a number of statistics on the productivity of Morgan State University he described as “truly nothing short of spectacular.” For instance, Wilson said, the university is the top institution in Maryland in the number of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans.
And based on employee surveys, he said, employers are satisfied with Morgan graduates.
“I have yet to see a result where they are below 95 percent satisfactory,” Wilson said.
Dr. John Wilson, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, said Morgan State was chosen for the policy forum for a two-fold reason.
“Everything we do is about strengthening the capacity of HBCUs,” Wilson said. “This day is set up to strengthen the capacity of not just HBCUs but America and Americans.”