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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Hugh Price : Rebuilding the Urban League--and the Inner City, as Well

July 03, 1994|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is a editorial writer for The Times based in Washington

NEW YORK — The Urban League no longer has the national presence it had when Whitney M. Young Jr. and Vernon E. Jordan Jr. championed jobs and civil-rights for black Americans moving from the fields of the South to the factories of the North. The battlegrounds have now shifted from legally segregated schools, workplaces and communities to economically isolated inner cities. The Urban League has also lost much of its federal funding as Washington ignored the cities and tightened its belt.

Hugh B. Price, new head of the National Urban League, must raise the profile of his organization, along with millions of dollars to improve the lot of poor blacks. Fighting poverty is as high on his agenda as fighting prejudice. Rather than "go hat in hand" to business and philanthropies, Price prefers to start with successful black Americans and then challenge others to give as deeply.

Price wants the millions of middle-class African Americans to contribute $500 to $1,000 to a youth-development fund to help poor black children. Only by marshaling their significant resources and giving of their time, Price says, can affluent black Americans encourage inner-city youths.

He knows whereof he speaks. He and a group of 24 black men put up $17,000 to finance an after-school program that helps poor black boys "circumnavigate the potholes in their lives." The men also mentor the boys, who typically end up as honor students. Price wants Urban League affiliates to fund similar programs that help disadvantaged black youngsters, particularly adolescents, perform better, behave better and excel.

Unlike many traditional civil-rights leaders, Price, 52, does not come from the pulpit or the trenches. He is an outsider at the 84-year-old organization. A lawyer by training, he has also been a member of the New York Times editorial board and an executive at PBS. Until Friday, he managed the Rockefeller Foundation's domestic initiatives.

Many can afford to give in the Westchester County community where Price lives with his wife, Marilyn, who works for the Manpower Development Research Corp. They have three adult daughters. A son of the black middle class, Price is polished and accomplished. He will need these talents--and all the help he can get--to tackle the litany of ills in the inner city.

Question: Is race still a barrier in 1994?

Answer: Absolutely. Race is very much a factor in American life . . . . The pattern of discrimination against African American (job) applicants persists to this day. It's true in lending practices. It's true in housing. So, yes, racism is still abroad in the land. It is subtler and less pervasive than before, but it is still a factor in American life.

There are other factors adversely effecting African Americans . . . . If you lived in the inner city 40 years ago, there was a rather thriving economy waiting for African Americans--if we could break open the barriers of discrimination. The assumption when the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was handed down (in 1954) was that (the decision) would blast open the barriers to the opportunities that existed in the cities. What no one quite anticipated was that those opportunities would dry up . . . . Manufacturing work and other work . . . would steadily evaporate from the inner city . . . . We've had an out-migration of good-paying blue-collar jobs, which has taken with it purchasing power, work as a way of life in families, and hope.

Q: Against those odds, how have African Americans prospered?

A: Many black Americans are as talented as everybody else. Many black Americans grew up in families that provide support. Many black Americans live in communities where school systems are quite sound. We have flooded into great universities all over the country. We have flooded into, and helped to build, the standing of many historically black colleges. Schools like Spelman and Morehouse rank with the best colleges in the country because the talent coming into those schools is stronger than ever.

We have flooded into previously all-white campuses. When I went to Amherst College, in 1959, I was one among five (black) students in my freshmen class. Only three of us finished. I don't know how many African Americans are in the freshmen class this year, but it's probably 10 times that number. When I was at Yale Law School, I was one of seven (African-Americans) in my class. There are probably three or four times that now . . . .

We need to realize the civil-rights movement was hugely successful for a significant segment of our population. However, the opening up of access and the breaking down of barriers has not worked for people whose skill levels are less, or who are living in communities where the schools do not serve them well or in areas where the jobs have simply disappeared.

Q: How concrete are class divisions among African Americans?

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