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Should President Barack Obama and Congress support a black agenda?

Last week, for the first time in my 30-year career as a journalist, I joined 17 African American reporters in the U.S. Capitol for an unprecedented roundtable discussion with 11 U.S. Senators who openly discussed education, jobs, voting right, diversity, health care – and race.

It was a rare opportunity for black journalists to spend nearly 90 minutes with a group of senators who fielded a range of questions specifically about African Americans and economic parity.

Will there be immediate legislation passed to improve the quality of life for African Americans? No. But this was a good start in what should be an ongoing discussion about race in America.

The black unemployment rate is still an unacceptable 13.5 percent, 27 percent of African Americans are living in poverty, one in nine black children in America has a parent in jail, more black children are growing up without fathers in their lives, and inner cities like Detroit are crumbling.

So one of the issues on the table was this: Should there be a black agenda coming from the White House and from Congress?

“The president wasn’t elected to be president of black America, he’s president of all America, the same issue you have in Massachusetts with (Gov.) Deval Patrick. If you’re going to govern, you’ve got to govern for everybody: those who voted for you, who look like you, and those who voted against you,” said Sen. Mo Cowan (D-MA).

“Let me be clear about this as a black American,” Cowan said.  “You know, the black American agenda, as I see it, is the American agenda. We are a huge part of this nation. We are not separate, but equal. We are very much a part of this, and I have faith and confidence in the president and this administration is focused on the things that matters most to black America.”

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, said congressional leaders haven’t done a good job “forging partnerships” with the African American community and Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, said racial discrimination still exists because quality education should not be decided by zip codes.

I asked the senators about America’s inner cities and serious problems that Detroit is facing with bankruptcy, a state take-over, 80,000 abandoned buildings, high crime – and President Barack Obama’s plan urban revitalization plan.

The plan to renovate some of the nation’s most devastated black neighborhoods is part of a broad strategy to help improve the quality of life for many black Americans.

The Obama administration created the White House Office on Urban Affairs and rolled out an ambitious initiative to spend billions of dollars over the next several years to overhaul predominantly black cities in the areas of education, housing, health care, poverty, transportation, infrastructure and safety.

It’s an epic initiative, considering the long-standing economic problems that inner cities have experienced. For eight years under the Bush administration, black neighborhoods were essentially ignored. But today, the Obama administration wants to right past wrongs with cutting-edge ideas. A government list of several “cities in crisis” includes Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska, answered my question, in part, by saying he believes mayors can turn cities around. I agreed, I said, but only if the mayors are supported by federal funding that seems to flow into America’s inner cities like glue.

In fact, GOP think tanks have crafted letters urging lawmakers to block every piece of legislation that Obama brings to the House floor and spend the next three years opposing the president’s policies. Basically, they are advising GOP congressional leaders not to work. What a waste of taxpayer money: paying Republicans on Capitol Hill to chill for three more years.

“How much does history play into the decisions made in the Senate?” asked April Ryan of American Urban Radio networks.

“I think all of us — not just me — need to be mindful of the history of this nation and how certain people haven’t always benefited from the largess and the opportunity this nation promises to everyone… if we are not reaching every group then we are failing,” Cowan told Ryan after the roundtable.

And just for a moment, while sitting in a cavernous meeting room on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol, I reflected on history and thought how was appropriate it was for black journalists to hear from United States Senators when African slaves actually helped build the U.S. Capitol.

“One of the things that I found was that actual African-American slaves were used in the construction of the U.S. Capitol and the White House,” said Jesse Holland, author of “Black Men Built the Capitol. “Out of just about the 600 or so people who worked on the Capitol, maybe about 400 were African-American slaves.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Michael Cottman)