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Remarks at the National Urban League Conference

August 08, 1989

Thank you very much, Dr. Watson. And to you, my friend John Jacob, thank you, sir -- Tony Burns, the chairman, and all the other Urban League leaders. I single out my Cabinet-mate, Secretary Kemp. I'm delighted that you're here, Jack. Thank you all.

You know, Jack told me coming over that you had a moment of silence -- a prayer, really, for Mickey Leland, my fellow Houstonian. And let me just say that we have been in touch with the Government of Ethiopia and the United Nations to learn the whereabouts of Congressman Leland's plane. Our Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney -- seeing what he can do in terms of search assets.

I think it says a lot about Mickey that he was on his sixth humanitarian mission to help feed the hungry in that part of the world, and so, I would just like to join you all in what you did this morning to say that our thoughts and prayers are with him. I talked to Alison, his wife, late this morning -- earlier this morning, I guess. She's strong, has a lot of hope. And we all pray that he's safe and that he and the others with him on that humanitarian mission will be found and that they'll all be safe. And we will, I can tell you as President, do all we can to learn what has happened.

I want to speak to you today about the state of urban America, about the future that I see for American cities and for the many millions of Americans who make them their home. In many respects, let's face it, urban America offers a bleak picture: an inner city in crisis. And there is too much crime, too much crack, too many dropouts, too much despair, too little economic opportunity, too little advancement, and -- the bottom line -- too little hope. But there's something else that's true about our inner cities, something we can't overlook, something the Urban League has worked tirelessly to strengthen; and that's a core community that is simply too strong to succumb, a community where there is too much faith, too much pride, too strong a sense of family not to fight back -- whatever their challenge, whatever the odds.

But the challenge for urban America is a challenge for all America. It's a challenge for my administration. It's a challenge every American must embrace. The condition of our inner cities isn't a matter of charts and graphs and these cold statistics. It's more than an exercise in sociology or public policy. It's a question of how people live their lives, a question of human dignity; and it's a challenge that I take to heart. Your problems are my problems; your hopes, the hopes all Americans hold dear. Today I offer you my hand, and I offer you my word: Together we will make America open and equal to all. And together we must and will find a way to stop the decline in our inner cities, to restore hope, and make the nineties a decade of urban renaissance.

And whether we succeed depends on how well we meet three key tests. First, we must strike down barriers to advancement and opportunity for American minorities -- and strike them down for good. And second, we must create conditions for urban growth and economic revival, conditions that leave no one behind. And finally, we must secure the most fundamental right of all: the right of young and old alike of any race to walk any street without fear.

Let me start with equal opportunity. Not just in urban America but across this nation, we must continue the crusade for equality. Just over a week ago, a collection of scholars released a monumental study called "A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society." It offers detailed evidence of the progress our nation has made in the past 50 years in living up to American ideals. But the study makes clear that our work is far from over. The great gulf between black and white America has narrowed, but it's not closed. And closing that gulf, eliminating it for all time, is the next chapter we must write in the unfolding history, the unfinished history, of civil rights. And that chapter will be written because today, as in the past, advancing the cause of equal rights is in keeping with our highest ideals. It's the right thing to do.

Think back to 1954, the Court's decision in favor of Linda Brown; a year later, another decision, Rosa Parks' refusal to go to the back of the bus; the 1960's, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing; and in this decade, the elevation of Dr. Martin Luther King to a place of honor among American heroes. It was the right thing to do. And today, when our challenge is securing true equality for every American, once again, we will succeed because it's the right thing to do.

Discrimination -- of course it still exists. Race hate, born of ignorance and inhumanity, still exists. The day of the poll tax is over. The day of Jim Crow is gone. Today bigotry and bias may take more subtle forms; but they persist, and as long as they do, my work is not over; your work is not over; our work is not over.

Before I go on, I want to make sure everyone in this room knows just exactly where I stand and just where my administration stands. My administration is committed to reaching out to minorities, to striking down barriers to free and open access. We will not tolerate discrimination, bigotry, or bias of any kind, period, just as Dr. Watson said.

Now, we've all spent a lot of time over the past two decades debating the best means of ending unequal treatment. And we've argued -- I've even argued with John Jacob; you try that one on for size -- we've argued, society's argued, about affirmative action, about quotas, about goals and timetables, about set-asides and 8 - A firms. Well, while society's been debating these important issues, society's also been changing. The economy's been changing. Our world, the world our children will inherit, is changing. And part of the change is the progress we have made -- hard-fought changes in which the Urban League can take pride. Part of the change is simply a matter of the dynamics at work in our world.

Take the economy: We're used to thinking of unemployment as a case of too many people and too few jobs. I remember playing musical chairs when I was a little kid -- a game of musical chairs. And all too often, it's the minorities left standing when the music stops. In the 1990's, into the next century, our problem -- our nation's problem -- will be just the opposite: more than enough jobs and too few people qualified to fill them.

The last of the baby boom generation are in their thirties. And there's been a slowdown in the number of new workers that are entering our economy, and that's going to continue into the 1990's. Talk to any demographer, and they'll tell you that's true. New works will be in demand -- new workers -- and the simple fact is that 8 out of every 10 new workers will be women, minorities, and immigrants. Think about what that means. Think about it: For every child growing up today -- black or white and, yes, urban or rural -- there will be a job waiting. The question, our challenge, is whether they'll have the education and the skills that they need to seize that opportunity. And that's the new frontier for civil rights.

Opportunity means education. The jobs open to the 21st century worker are going to require higher skills. And never has education been more important than for the next generation, for the first-grader -- today's first-grader -- who is a member of the high school class of the year 2001. The package of education initiatives that I sent to the Congress this spring will make a difference for urban America and for American minorities. And I've called on Congress to provide a $250 million increase in funds for Head Start, a key program in getting disadvantaged children ready for school. And back in April, I signed an Executive order that will strengthen our nation's historically black colleges and universities and expand opportunities for their students and their graduates.

In many urban schools, the key is creating a sound learning environment, one that keeps the dropouts in and keeps the drugs out. And that's why I've called for the creation of urban emergency grants to help clean up schools hit hardest by the drug scourge. Education is the way to turn dreams into reality, and even in the inner city, every kid has a dream.

And opportunity means job training, building the employment skills and basic literacy ability that everyone needs to get and keep a job. For 6 years now, the Job Training Partnership program has been equipping the disadvantaged youth to enter the work force, to start that climb up out of the poverty trap. JTPA -- it works. The proof is its 68-percent success ratio, and we're working to make the program even stronger. Last month we introduced amendments to the Job Training Partnership Act to target it more tightly on at-risk youth, kids with the most urgent need for job training.

But growth creates jobs, and the future of urban America depends on bringing growth to our inner cities. One entrepreneurial answer to inner city poverty -- and I salute my Secretary of HUD for being in the foreground on this one -- is enterprise zones. Enterprise zones can be a source of jobs, growth, and advancement. And the payoff isn't simply economic. When you create jobs, you create hope. We've debated the idea of enterprise zones long enough. And I've asked Congress to create at least 50 enterprise zones between now and 1993, and now is the time for action.

But enterprise zones are meaningless if we don't create economic incentives for urban expansion. And that's why I've also called on Congress to enact changes in the Tax Code that will make enterprise zones magnets for capital, magnets for job creation. And I'm talking about incentives to increase investment, to open a flow of seed capital into urban areas. And if we're going to make inner cities attractive to new capital, individuals who invest in enterprise zones should get an immediate tax savings.

And we've also got to reward risk-taking. I've proposed a zero capital gains rate for eligible business investments in enterprise zones. If you take your capital and go there to invest, you ought to have that as an incentive to put the business where the jobs must be for outside -- [applause]. It should be a powerful incentive for outside investors and a rate of return fitting for urban entrepreneurs.

And I'm talking about incentives for working people. We want to establish what's known as a refundable wage credit for low-income employees in enterprise zones. In many cases, this credit will cut the taxes of low-income workers to zero. And for some low-income families who already owe little in taxes, a refundable credit will not only take them off the Federal income tax rolls; it will put money in their pockets.

Opportunity, education, advancement, equality: each is essential. But we can't talk about the future we want to see for urban America without talking about the number-one threat in our inner cities today. You know what that is, every one of you: illegal drugs. And you know the simple truth: Our inner cities cannot become centers of opportunity as long as they are battle zones in a drug war.

A little over a week ago, our Secretary of HHS, Dr. Louis Sullivan, released the newest statistics -- maybe some of you all saw it in the paper -- the newest statistics on illegal drug use in America. The statistics show two trends, one positive and one profoundly, earthshakingly disturbing. Overall use of cocaine has declined by almost half -- testimony to the years of dedication and hard work of parents, educators, religious and community leaders, all determined to end this plague. But our greatest challenge is yet to come. Frequent cocaine use -- frequent use -- is up sharply.

And that means while our message is getting across to the casual user, hardcore drugs, drugs like this insidious crack cocaine, are tightening their grip. And that's grim news, that's bad news for the United States of America, because crack, crime, and violence -- they're the unholy trinity in our inner cities. And urban communities suffer the most. And when the crackhouse is on your block, and when the stray bullet from a drug war shootout kills some mother sitting on her porch, and when parents and teachers and churches struggle to teach the values of honesty and hard work and then find themselves up against the fast-money lure of the drug trade, there's a certain hopelessness.

But our children can live and learn in peace. Urban communities can thrive again. And that's why we've got to combat drug violence, and that's why we've got to eliminate fear, and that's why we've got to create a climate of hope. The Federal Government is doing its part. We're going to do more. We've taken forceful action to speed up the eviction process for drug dealers in America's public housing. And in less than a month, we'll unveil a new national drug strategy, our comprehensive battle plan to wage the long, hard fight against illegal drugs.

And there's a message that I want to send today, all out across this country, to all law-abiding Americans: The war on drugs is a battle that can't simply be waged from Washington, DC. When I was in Chicago last month, I asked this nation's Governors to pass laws in each of their States that parallel the tough Federal stand that we've taken against illegal drugs. And today I ask each of you to do the same at the local level, in urban America. Let's put more police on the streets, tougher laws on the books, build the jail cells that we need to put drug criminals where they belong -- behind bars -- and, in my view, keep them there. Let's not point the finger or look for scapegoats. Let's enlist every asset that we have, form a united front, and fight this war together.

There are some who say -- and you've heard it -- the state of urban America is hopeless. The National Urban League doesn't believe that. I say they're wrong. We've got to see past the stories on the 6 o'clock news and past the statistics. We've got to see the potential for progress; we've got to see the face of hope in our inner cities.

And, now, I'm not afraid to say we've got hard work ahead of us: We've got to wage war on poverty and wage war on despair and wage war on the hopelessness that robs us of our future. And I want to tell all of you here today: I'm not going to relax in this job, or rest, until I know that I have done everything in my power to ensure that we succeed, that every child in our inner cities has a shot at a good job, that every kid stays in school and gets a quality education -- yes, lives in decent housing in a neighborhood free of drugs, fear, and violence. We've got to work together to achieve these goals. I know we will, and I know why. John, you know why. Jack Kemp, Dr. Watson, you know why. Everyone here today knows why: Because, simply, it is the right thing to do. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:25 p.m. at the Washington Convention Center. In his remarks, he referred to Bernard Watson, John Jacob, and M. Anthony Burns, senior vice chairman, president and chief executive officer, and chairman of the National Urban League, respectively, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack F. Kemp.

George Bush, Remarks at the National Urban League Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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