January/ February 2013 Introduction: Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term

By Paul Glastris

In the summer of 2011, under siege from both the left and the right for his efforts to broker a budget deal to avoid a debt default, Barack Obama defended his leadership with a telling historical analogy. He noted that the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of which hangs on his Oval Office wall, outlawed slavery only in rebel states while allowing the practice to continue elsewhere in the country. This compromise, Obama noted, was necessary to keep Union-allied slave states like Kentucky and Missouri behind the war effort—and it was the Union’s military superiority that ultimately enabled the freeing of all the slaves. Yet had partisan media outlets like the Huffington Post been around when Lincoln signed the Proclamation, Obama joked, the headline would have read: “Lincoln Sells Out Slaves.”

Obama was making a fair point about the wisdom and necessity of compromise—a point later reflected in a memorable scene in the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, when the president, accused by abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of lacking a moral compass, responds that knowledge of true north is not enough to navigate past the swamps that stand between you and your destination.

Yet if compromise was a vital component of the Proclamation, it is worth remembering who precisely was asked to sacrifice. It wasn’t the abolitionists, whose only real stake in the outcome was their moral convictions. It was African Americans, whose day of liberation was deferred. And the waiting, of course, would continue. For after the glory of emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment came the failure of Reconstruction and, with it, the stripping of black political and economic rights. The brutal reimposition of a white supremacist system under Jim Crow would survive another century and affect the trajectory of black America far beyond that.

On the eve of Obama’s second inauguration, a day that falls almost exactly 150 years after the Proclamation went into effect, we thought it appropriate to devote this issue of the magazine to the subjects of race, history, and the condition of minorities in America today. For while it is true that Obama, as measured by his November vote totals, retains the overwhelming support of Americans of color, that support was accompanied by yet another political compromise. America, it seemed, would reelect its first black president, but only if he didn’t talk about race.

Obama mentioned race fewer times in his first two years in office than any Democratic president since 1961, according to a study by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Daniel Gillon. When he has talked about it, it often has not gone well. When he said last year that if he had a son, “he would look like Trayvon” Martin, the young man who was killed tragically in Florida, he provoked a fierce backlash, not only from the predictable sources—Rush Limbaugh and the National Review—but also from more moderate groups that had previously condemned Martin’s killing. Obama’s simple expression of sympathy became instantaneously polarizing, a political liability both to himself and to those who would advocate for black issues. Perhaps chastened by the experience, Obama has since returned to his tried-and-true strategy of assiduously avoiding the topic of race.

This politically imposed cone of silence around the president makes it all the more difficult for the nation to acknowledge and confront discrimination in our society—and if you doubt such a thing still exists, consider the eight-hour lines this past fall at some polling stations in minority neighborhoods in Ohio and Florida after Republican-led governments narrowed early-voting laws. Or consider the AFL-CIO-sponsored poll showing that nationwide, 24 percent of Latino voters and 22 percent of African Americans waited longer than thirty minutes to vote in November, while only 9 percent of whites did.

The don’t-talk-about-race stricture also makes it hard for the country to have an honest conversation about the many realms of American life in which minorities suffer disproportionately—even if overt discrimination isn’t the driving cause. Nearly all Americans lost significant wealth in the Great Recession, but as a percentage of income blacks and Hispanics lost far more. Modern health scourges like obesity and diabetes are hitting all of America hard but African Americans harder. Our China-like rates of incarceration are slowly beginning to trouble the consciences of the opinion-making class, but they have long been a devastating reality in the lives of black families, where every third father or son is, has been, or someday will be behind bars.

It has never been easy to engage the sympathies of America’s white majority on issues of racial inequality, even in the best of times—and these are far from the best of times. Many whites today are of the view that the civil rights era removed the main obstacles to minority self-advancement, and that whatever disparities remain are largely the result of bad personal choices or unhelpful cultural mores for which contemporary whites cannot be blamed. But it is also the case that many whites, perhaps even most, have a lingering sense that it is not that simple—that our country’s past mistreatment of minorities has consequences that are still playing out, even if the chain of causality is not altogether clear.

One aim of the stories in this issue is to clarify those historical causal chains. Why, for instance, do middle-class blacks today have substantially less wealth than whites at the same income level? It is not a lesser propensity to save. Rather, as Thomas Sugrue explains (“A House Divided”), many working-class white Americans spent the late 1940s through the early ’60s riding the great escalator of upward mobility, building wealth they could pass on to their children with the help of a booming economy and federally subsidized mortgages and college educations. Meanwhile, black Americans were not allowed on board because of various discriminatory laws and practices. When, in the late 1960s and ’70s, the federal government began eliminating these barriers, the great postwar economic escalator was already beginning to break down. Union jobs were disappearing. Wages were stagnating. And the homes African Americans were buying in the inner cities, often from whites who were leaving for the suburbs, were about to decline rather than rise in value. In other words, past discrimination and bad timing, not bad habits, best explain today’s racial wealth disparities.

If whites and minorities were once on different economic and social tracks, they sure aren’t anymore. Downward mobility is now a shared American experience, especially since the Great Recession. Family breakdowns we once associated with poor blacks are now common among working- and middle-class whites (see Isabel Sawhill, “The New White Negro”). This merging of racial trajectories is not exactly good news. But it does provide an opening for the president to lead, even if he doesn’t have much latitude to talk openly about race, for the simple reason that it is now more possible to argue that policies that would help minorities would also profoundly benefit the majority.

The most promising of those policies, moreover, really are color-blind. The best way to reduce minority health disparities, it turns out, is to do something about the broader problems of income and social inequality (see Phillip Longman, “Is Inequality Shortening Your Life Span?”). The surest route to narrowing the black-white wealth gap is to crack down on the predatory lending that threatens the whole financial sector (see Reid Cramer, “The American Dream, Redeemed”). The key to helping more college students of color graduate is to demand more accountability from the entire higher education system (see Kevin Carey, “The Next Affirmative Action”). Our unconscionably high rates of incarceration (Glenn Loury, “Prison’s Dilemma”), could be substantially reduced with parole system reforms that would also lower the overall crime rate (Mark Kleiman, “A New Role for Parole”).

Policies like these should be Obama’s true north, the point toward which he should try to move the nation in the next four years. There are swamps between here and there, among them the public’s conflicted and often virulent attitudes toward race. But great presidents find ways to navigate around the swamps.

Click here to read more on race, history, and Obama’s second term.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.


  • Ted Peters on January 14, 2013 2:21 PM:

    Psychologically, a man's capacity to compromise derives from a successful resolution of his Oedipal conflict during early childhood. Unfortunately, little boys who grow up without fathers never need to develop this critical social function, because they believe that they managed to triumph over the absent dad. As adults, such men exhibit extreme narcissism and treat those who may disagree with them as inferior beings who deserve no respect, without any regard to the reasonableness of their positions. If they fail to get their way in a dispute, they will become enraged and/or depressed.

  • Ah on January 14, 2013 4:27 PM:

    Thanks Ted, always wondered where Republicans came from.

  • Paul on January 14, 2013 4:29 PM:

    He noted that the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of which hangs on his Oval Office wall, outlawed slavery only in rebel states while allowing the practice to continue elsewhere in the country. This compromise, Obama noted, was necessary...

    That interpretation of Lincoln's "compromise" I think is in error, for it mistakes Lincoln's ultimate no-compromise goal with his modern hagiography.

    Lincoln's ultimate no-compromise goal was not ending slavery, it was preserving the Union. So yes, Lincoln did "sell out" the slaves. But not as a compromise to what he wanted, but a compromise to get what he wanted.

    Anywhere the notion of union was threatened Lincoln had no scruples. Sell out slaves, suspend Habeus Corpus, print funny money...Lincoln's activities in the Civil War were not a man working compromises, but a man working a no-compromise deal no matter the cost to get what he wanted.

  • Buzz on January 14, 2013 6:46 PM:

    Ah- Obama is a democrat, not a republican. Not sure how that went over your head. It was in the papers and everything.

  • James Robertson on January 14, 2013 6:57 PM:

    Parole reform may or may not help. What would? Ending the war on drugs, for the same reasons that we ended prohibition

  • Gryphon on January 14, 2013 7:44 PM:

    Except for the ugly fact that Obama hasn't helped anyone; particularly blacks (go look the numbers up from whatever federal source you rely on for raw data).

    Obama has done more to destroy the black community and black families than any other President in history. The really sad and frustrating part is that the black community and black families are contributing to their own demise in the end.

  • Mike S on January 14, 2013 7:53 PM:

    Just to remind you, "race" comes in a multitude of colors besides black and white. Unfortunately, this article is living in the black and white era.

    Here's something to think about-- America fought 3 (three!) genocidal wars in Southeast Asia, against different varieties of Asian people. Japan. Korea. Vietnam. The anti-Asian sentiment in this country was as strong, if not stronger, than any other racial animus. When did we fight a hand-to-hand, drop a nuke on you!!!, fight with any primarily Black country? How many people were alive over the past 50 years who fought in those wars? Had friends or children die in those wars? People who went on to be business owners, college presidents, politicians, you-name-it?

    And yet, given this "history," and I use the word loosely because these events all occurred in a single lifetime, what group is the most successful in the Land of Opportunity? (Um, that's the USA for you folks at home.) Is it Whites? Well, no actually. It is Asian-Americans. By every metric you choose, Asian-Americans are the most successful ethnic group in America.

    But how is that possible? I thought there was this magic escalator to prosperity that had a "Whites Only" sign on it. So why are a third of all PhD's in the California University system awarded to Asians? They didn't even hear about the escalator!

    Please Washington Monthly. You embarrass yourself when you print stupid, politically correct tripe like this crap. The "escalator to prosperity" you imagine existed still exists! It's called hard-work, prudence, education, sobriety, and delayed gratification.

    Deal with it.

  • Michael W. Perry on January 14, 2013 8:49 PM:

    Both Obama and Paul Glastris could have at least mentioned that the troubles that forced compromises were due to a Democratic party that was as rabidly proslavery and then pro-segregation as it is now for abortion.

    Readers might want to ask themselves many of our countries big woes would have been avoided if we didn't have anything resembling Obama's own party.

  • former democrat on January 14, 2013 8:59 PM:

    It's really kind of amazing that democrats get twisted in a know when you so much as disagree with them. The first commenter, Ted, hit it right on the head.
    It's why I love to engage them in political discussions. It's fun to watch as they realize facts are not on their side how angry and abusive they get.
    The good thing is that Obama will be gone in four years and the nation will have had enough of his garbage so adults will be back in power.
    Just so sad how we have to fix things after democrats are in office.

  • John on January 14, 2013 8:59 PM:

    White Democrat president's mention race because it allows them to villify their opponents endlessly. This ability is factory-set in the Obama presidency, he needn't mention it. Implicit in his every word is that disagreement equals racism.

    I guess dissent is no longer the highest form of patriotism. That's so 2006.

  • netprophet on January 14, 2013 11:03 PM:

    Ah Republicans passed the 13th Amendment against stiff Democrat opposition. Republicans passed the civil rights act in 1964 against stiff Democrat opposition. FDR declared our rights come from government. LBJ declared a War on Poverty in which we have now spent trillions and we have more people on food stamps then ever. They both thought they were absolutely right and on that basis must have not had fathers.

  • Anonymous on January 14, 2013 11:14 PM:

    Obama received the votes of virtually the entire African-American community in both elections, and it can be said that vote put him over the top in both elections. Yes, he brought African-Americans into his cabinet, but no more so that his predecessor. He was ever so quick to identify with Skip Gates and Treyvon Martin on racial grounds, even before the facts had developed to indicate that race had little or nothing to do with either incident.

    Yet, to date, he has ignored the golden opportunity to speak out and to show leadership with respect to the disfuctionalities within the African-American communities (children having children, predominantly single parent homes with no fathers, thug culture, murders and shootings in every major city every weekend - especially Chicago, opprobrium toward academic achievement within school age peer groups, excessive dependency upon government programs - generation after generation, rampant drug usage and dealing, glorification of criminality in music, etc. etc.). But he has said not a word. Whether these pathologies are traceable to the sources urged by this author, or by a lack of leadership of the caliber of Rev. King (think Jackson and Sharpton), or some other cause, they are nevertheless serious pathologies. Would our first African-American President to step up here is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but since it would take great courage and a certain selflessness, it is never going to happen.


  • Reilly on January 15, 2013 1:54 PM:

    Intra-generational poverty is the result of government dependency, expanded and advocated by obama and the democrat party (not predatory lending as the author lamely postulates). No one ever jumped to another class on perpetual welfare (as opposed to a helping hand for a limited period of time.

    The key to higher graduation rates and less incarceration is intact families with fathers present and mothers whose age doesn't end in "teen". The democrats unconscionable program of "dollars for daddies" destroyed the black family and has left it in tatters. The only progress the democrats have made in decreasing the number of blacks in poverty is unfettered abortion.

  • Clifton Little on January 25, 2013 12:50 PM:

    The Washington Monthly, the C-Span coverage and the Kellogg Foundation are interesting and intriguing entities addressing these issues of Racism, US History, and Obama's second term and the impact it will have on the future of America. I'd recommend that everyone see, read and possibly get involved to some degree on improving the American economy for all and addressing these critical issues for our futures by learning from our past to see what we can do to make life better in our ever-changing mult-faceted society. "Slavery By Another Name" by Douglass Blackborn and Mrs. Gail Chrisopher, VP of Program Strategy for The Kellogg Foundation may be good sources to start your educational, philanthropic, economic and humanitarian quest if your interest level heightens.