MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. As graduation season comes to a close for this year, we'll talk about a couple of issues in higher education. We'll talk about why more and more colleges are quietly moving away from their commitment to admitting students without regard for ability to pay. And we'll speak with the leader of one that isn't. We'll also talk about why a major financial gift to USC from music mogul Dr. Dre is causing some controversy.
First though, a newsmaker interview with U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge. She is a Democrat from Ohio and she's now taken on the additional responsibility of chairing the Congressional Black Caucus, known as the CBC. That group has 44 members and their votes can be key on critical legislation, including the proposed immigration overhaul. They also represent what has been the most loyal constituency of former CBC member President Barack Obama, but they don't always see eye to eye with him.
Now as some key legislation is moving forward, we thought this would be a good time to check in with CBC chair Marcia Fudge and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Congresswoman, welcome. Thanks for joining us.
REPRESENTATIVE MARCIA FUDGE: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.
MARTIN: Would you just briefly describe how you see the caucus's priorities for this session of Congress?
FUDGE: Well, certainly everyone's talking about immigration. It is one of our priorities. As well as jobs clearly is a priority with the CBC. And poverty. How do we address the issues of poverty in this country? Those are our three main priorities. Those are things that we work on every single day. But we have many other issues, obviously, that we work on. But those are our main priorities.
MARTIN: I do want to ask about one thing that you didn't mention, which is gun violence. I mean, at the beginning of the year, because of a number of, you know, horrific incidents - the Newtown shooting among them - the president made a big push for new gun controls. But that seems to be stalled. It seems that African-Americans are disproportionately affected by gun violence, either as victims or as the people who are targeted in certain law enforcement strategies.
And I just wondered if there was something that the CBC can do to jumpstart this discussion.
FUDGE: We have been talking about a culture of violence in this country for a very long time, well before Newtown. We lose people every day. Babies are shot in our neighborhoods every day. And so we've been talking about it for some time, and clearly gun violence is an issue but it has been an issue in our communities for a very long time.
MARTIN: Well, that sounds like, though, you're saying that you're stuck.
FUDGE: Well, I don't know that we're stuck. I think that - now, I'm just going to be very, very frank with you, if I may. We had hoped that the killing of those babies in Newtown would make a difference. I'm not so sure that it has made the difference that we wanted it to make. At least people are talking about it and thinking about it. This country has already said, poll after poll after poll, they want something done about gun violence in this country.
But you have to also understand that we work within a structure, that even though our voices are heard, we are 44 of 435. Or, if you take the Senate, 535. So even though we raise our voices about the issue on a consistent basis, we still have to go through certain hoops to make something happen.
MARTIN: So let's then move to immigration, which you identified as one of the priorities that you're working on here. The Senate's been working on an immigration bill and increasingly it seems that African-American members of the Congress are raising objections. What's your chief objection? What are the objections that you've been hearing from members?
FUDGE: Well, there are two objections. One is that we've not been involved at the table in the process. And that is a huge problem when you consider the fact that there are more than three million immigrants in this county who are of African descent or Caribbean. And so I think it is important for us to be involved in the discussion.
Our biggest concern is that they did away with diversity visas, which are the visas that have been historically used to bring people from underserved countries - primarily the continent of Africa and the Caribbean. They just took them out of the bill altogether. And so we inserted ourselves in the discussion to ensure that when they comprehensive say immigration reform, it is comprehensive.
MARTIN: Overall, though, what is the caucus's point of view? I mean I understand your point about diversity visas. I mean the objection that has been raised by people we've spoken with have pointed out, for example, that the bill includes a number of special provisions for people from certain countries. But what about the overall issue? I mean the moving philosophically from family reunification to biasing towards certain skills, including those in tech.
I mean there are people increasingly who say that this is exactly the kind of thing that has encouraged this country to under-invest in education in this country. What's the caucus's overall philosophy about what should the country's priority be around immigration?
FUDGE: There are three things that we are fighting for, not just the diversity visas. But certainly we as well are talking about the fact that there has to be family unification. There has to be that as part of the bill. But more importantly, we are concerned about how we build capacity within this country. When you talk about H1B visas, or the high skilled visas, we know for a fact that in this country there are African-Americans who are already prepared to do this work.
We know that HBCUs graduate more people in science, technology, engineering and math than almost any other collective group of schools. We want our people not only to have these jobs but to build capacity K through 12 to prepare young people for these jobs. But if you say you're going to have as many as 100,000 high-skilled visas come into this country every year, then that is saying to my children, you know what? Don't even go into that field because there's not going to be a place for you.
MARTIN: So the NAACP, which is the, one might argue, one of the premier or the premier civil rights organization that traditionally represents the interests of African-Americans, say that they are supporting the immigration bill in concept because they see it as a social justice issue. Are you saying that you disagree with them?
FUDGE: No, I'm not saying that at all. Because there are other things in there that the NAACP supports. Racial profiling, something that we as a people have been fighting for for the longest. If they can get it in an immigration bill, yeah, we're happy about that. We are encouraged by the discussions that are going on right now, at least in the Senate bill.
We are encouraged that they are going to take into consideration some of the things that we believe are important for not only African and Caribbean immigrants, but for people everywhere.
MARTIN: So as the bill stands right now, are you saying that you are going to support it or not?
FUDGE: I'm not saying either because I don't know where the bill actually is going to be by the time it comes to a vote. What I'm saying to you now is that I am encouraged by the Senate bill and if that is the bill that ultimately were to come out, I would be supportive of that bill.
MARTIN: Even though it doesn't include diversity visas?
FUDGE: Well, but it does. They may not be called diversity visas but there are things in the bill that do allow for people, especially from Sub-Saharan Africa, from the Caribbean - it also continues to give us temporary protective status for people from Haiti and other things.
So there are a lot of things in the bill that are good. Certainly we didn't get everything we wanted, but we do understand that just because they're not called diversity visas does not mean that there is not a pathway for people that I've just discussed.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with March Fudge. She is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She also represents a district in Ohio as a congresswoman. I'd like to turn now, in the time that we have left, to the CBC's relationships with the White House. As you know, of course, African-Americans have been the president's most loyal constituency.
And in fact, there is even data suggesting that African-Americans increased their voting numbers and voting now at higher rates than the rest of the population for the first time in history. And a lot of people believe that's in large part to continue to support him in his efforts. And yet, you know, the caucus has been critical of the president on a number of issues.
They feel that he hasn't worked hard enough on unemployment issues. And you have also, in his second term, been critical of some of his cabinet picks. You don't felt that it represents the diversity that you would like to see, particularly now that some people have stepped down, like Lisa Jackson at the EPA.
So now that Anthony Fox has been selected to lead the Transportation Department, are your concerns addressed?
FUDGE: Let me first just put this in context. We have been critical and disagree with almost every president on some issue. Secondly, I think that there is not any group of people in this country who do not believe that they should be a part of the process. We want a seat at the table, just as does everyone else. And we believe we deserve a seat at the table, based upon the things you just said.
We are voting in higher numbers than we ever have. We are a political power base in this country. We are one of the most loyal groups of people to the Democratic Party, and we believe we should be involved in the process.
I am certainly pleased that the president has appointed both Mel Watt, and to the Cabinet, Mayor Foxx. I believe they are both highly qualified. I certainly do hope that they will be confirmed, but we're always going to have issues that are different than what the president wants, whoever the president may be.
MARTIN: Overall, though, one issue that has emerged among a number of commentators is the question of the president's tone when he speaks to African-American audiences, and that's something that members of the caucus have also talked about when he's spoken to them as a group, including at the CBC's annual dinner. A number of commentators have pointed out most recently after he spoke at Morehouse College, a very prestigious historically black college in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr. and a number of other luminaries attended, about personal responsibility, and they point out, you know, he doesn't give that speech at places like Barnard, a majority white institution for women. He doesn't go and say, you know what? When you get to the corporate suites, don't cut your own deals. Don't just think about yourself. Don't put a daycare suite next door for yourself and forget about childcare for everybody else. I mean he doesn't take that.
Other people say, well, this is family and family can speak bluntly to family. And they feel that maybe he's saying some things that need to be said. Where are you on that?
FUDGE: First, let me say I'm just happy that he spoke at a black institution. I think that that is significant. Now, I didn't hear the speech. I don't know exactly what he said in the speech, but I do think that there are some things that can be said to audiences that are familiar that may not be said to other audiences, and I don't want to say it was good or bad because I don't know what he said. But I do know that he does...
MARTIN: Well, you've been there when he's spoken with the caucus.
FUDGE: Yes. Well, he has spoken with the caucus and there are those who believe that he is saying the right thing and there are those who do not. I personally - and I'm speaking for myself, not the caucus - I would hope that he would continue to address the need for us to move forward and to not focus as much on things that have, in the past, really hampered us, but I think the tone is important. I really do think tone is important.
And he has, I think, because of his own background - has a need to say to people some of the things he says, and I think that's OK. But I do think tone is important.
MARTIN: What metric will you be using to evaluate his performance this year?
FUDGE: One is if the jobless rate for African-Americans comes down, which is currently almost double the rate of unemployment throughout this country; how effective this administration is as it relates to issues that particularly impact poor and minority communities, if we get an immigration bill that does, in fact, mean that all people have the ability to come to this country, as well as where we go as it relates to just the economy in general. I think that those are good barometers of a successful administration.
MARTIN: Marcia Fudge is a member of Congress. She's a Democrat from Ohio. She's currently serving as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Madam Chair, we hope you'll come back and see us.
FUDGE: I would love to do it. Thank you.
MARTIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.