President Obama meets with black journalists, including Essence magazine's Cynthia Gordy (center).
(ESSENCE) -- Several hours before President Barack Obama gave his well-received speech at the NAACP centennial convention in New York City, he spoke before another probing audience of African-Americans aboard Air Force One.
In a historic roundtable discussion with seven reporters representing various black media outlets, including ESSENCE magazine, the President discussed his specific plans for improving conditions for African-Americans, a community that some critics say he has neglected to address, and explained what he believes is the single most important issue they face in the 21st century.
The conversation, held in a brown leather-interior conference room on the jetliner, was the President's first meeting with African-American media. It opened on a familiar critique-his resistance to implement a policy specifically addressing racial disparities, such as the 14.7 percent black unemployment rate.
Asked about Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's recent criticism of the president for failing to promote a race agenda, Obama replied dryly, "First of all, I think Mr. Steele should focus on what the Republican Party's going to do."
But he stood by his position that fixing the economy overall is the most urgent thing he can do for the black community, touting provisions in his recovery package that kept teachers and police officers employed, provided extended unemployment insurance, and created new jobs. "All these things help everybody, but obviously they're especially important to African-Americans in this economy." Essence: Michelle Obama's influence becomes a worldwide phenomenon
That said, the president continued that he is, in fact, targeting communities most in need through the new White House Office of Urban Affairs aimed at improving employment and housing in American cities. One of his urban policy proposals, called Promise Neighborhoods, focuses on children in low-income neighborhoods with early childhood education and weekend community centers. Essence: Is the NAACP still relevant to black youth?
In addition, Obama said that the upcoming health reform bill should absolutely address health disparities such as the elevated rate of diseases like HIV/AIDS in the black community. He neglected to expound on how he would push for such legislation, however, instead re-emphasizing his broader approach.
"The African-American community stands to benefit enormously from an overarching health reform bill," he said before explaining that many of the disparities are due to blacks being far more likely to be uninsured.
When a reporter asked how he felt about the dichotomy of Sasha and Malia Obama being the first daughters while black children in Philadelphia were recently turned away from a private swimming pool, the President said it underscored the fact that his election has not, in fact, ushered the country in a so-called "post-racial" era. Essence: Music stars want their share of the money pie
"On the other hand," he said, "The biggest barriers that young African-Americans face today have less to do with blatant discrimination and more to do with long-term inequalities."
For example, the most important issue for the African-American community, according to the President, is education. "If we close the achievement gap, then a big chunk of economic inequality in this society is diminished," he said, arguing that getting our kids up to speed involves better teachers, greater accountability, and a combination of more resources and education reform.
Acknowledging the enormous expectations laid on him by some African-Americans, Obama expressed certainty in his polices but also called for patience.
"It took us years to get in the current situation. We're not going to get out of it in six months," he said. "I'm confident, but I'm also mindful that this administration is not filled with miracle workers. It's going to be a tough hard slog for us to dig ourselves out of the hole that we're in."