Political Animal


January 20, 2013 8:27 PM Obama as a racial justice president

By Kathleen Geier

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Frederick Harris, a political science professor at Columbia, which argues that Barack Obama has failed to adequately address “the persistence of racial inequality,” such as the “stagnant poverty, disparate incarceration rates and educational gaps affecting African Americans.”

Coincidentally, the excellent new January/February issue of The Washington Monthly is devoted, on the eve of Barack Obama’s second inauguration, to the theme of “race, history, and the condition of minorities in America today.” There is a ton of fantastic stuff in it, but the piece that really directly addresses Harris’ op-ed is reporter Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s Obama article, “A Great President for Blacks?”

Van Zuylen-Wood very much answers that question in the affirmative, and it’s instructive to examine exactly where and how he differs from Harris. But first, a little about Harris’s piece. Its peg is the is amazing coincidence that tomorrow, President Obama’s inauguration and the Martin Luther King holiday will converge. Harris compares Obama to MLK, and unsurprisingly, Obama is found wanting. Harris contends that Obama has “spoken less about poverty and race than any Democratic president in a generation,” and argues, persuasively, that MLK would have condemned Obama’s national security policies. But his main complaint seems to be that Obama is not doing enough to decrease racial and economic inequality.

Van Zuylen-Wood, on the other hand, doesn’t so much critique Obama for the things he hasn’t done as examine the things he has. He cites many specific Obama administration policies that have disproportionately benefited African-Americans, from the jobs that were saved by the stimulus, to health care provided by the ACA, to education and Justice Department initiatives. It’s a solid, well-reported article, and I’d say he’s got the better of the argument.

It’s not that Harris doesn’t have an important point. African-Americans have suffered terribly and disproportionately in this recession, and I agree that President Obama hasn’t done enough about economic inequality. There are many things he could have done better where this issue is concerned. I’ve been particularly troubled by his choices of non-progressives like Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke, and Jack Lew to fill key economic positions, and by Obama’s failure to enact pro-labor executive orders and administrative rules. It’s also disappointing that the Obama administration has not acted more vigorously to protect affirmative action, which very much looks as if it might be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court this term.

All in all, what I’d say on behalf of Harris’s argument is that it’s hardly a bad thing for progressives to hold Obama to a high standard — pushing him to be better, even to the point of being annoying about it, is part of our job. And that his surely what Martin Luther King would be doing, if he were alive today.

But Harris fails to take account of the context in which Obama has had to operate, and that is just bizarre. President Obama can’t unilaterally enact policy; he’s had to fashion legislation that will get through Congress, which has policy preferences which are significantly more conservative than his are. Also, as the nation’s first African-American president, Obama’s ability to speak out on race is severely constrained. As Paul Glastris points out in the current issue of the Washington Monthly, when Obama has addressed Trayvon Martin and other racial issues, it has provoked a “fierce backlash” and created a “political liability.” Obama’s decision to mostly remain silent about race is probably the correct one, because it has enabled him to be a more effective president.

My other critique of Harris is that to compare a president, who works within the system, to a social justice activist, who works outside of it, is simply not appropriate. Their political roles are completely different, particularly in the American political system, which does not tend to produce very progressive presidents, or presidential candidates, for that matter.

I once attended a speech by Congressman Keith Ellison, who beautifully and succinctly explained the different roles played by activists and elected officials. Ellison declared, “Lyndon Johnson did not inspire Martin Luther King.” He paused for a few moments, then said, “I repeat: Lyndon Johnson did not inspire Martin Luther King.”


Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Uva Be on January 20, 2013 10:14 PM:

    What a tough four years for President Obama. That is my first thought, before I criticize him or not on the question of racial equality in America. I am stunned how racist our elected officials are, and disgusted by their pigheaded behavior.. And in spite of this, our half African American president got work done. Beyond getting a foothold in the mountain climb that is health care reform, (HCR did help me, even if only just a start). Also, for example, they passed: The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009. My family personally received an apology letter and $725.. years worth of back owed Amazon gift certificates from Chase bank. I know that doesn't fix much, but, it matters when you live hand to mouth, paying down your debt when you can. Also, the interest rates greatly helped our family with our underwater home. I could go on.. but. I just think history will look back and see that he made a much needed shift. And while I don't claim to know what Martin Luther King would say. I am thankful that he never gives up and keeps fighting for all of us.

  • N.Wells on January 21, 2013 12:01 AM:

    For all that Harris's complaints have some validity, they are immensely short-sighted. Yes, minorities and people in the lower class of whatever skin color have suffered disproportionately in the recession, and we haven't fairly balanced the scales for them and haven't given them equal access to our ladders of opportunity. The little that Obama has said about race since being elected must also be understood in our context, where whatever he says on the subject (such as on the Trayvon Martin and Henry Louis Gates incidents) immediately becomes distorted and counterproductive given the lunacy and bigotry of his opposition). All of that fades into insignificance, however, because what Obama says is completely and totally overwhelmed by what he is. He has become president. Twice. He has totally, completely, and forever smashed that particular glass ceiling. He provides a role model, a incalculable source of pride, and an ideal for future generations of children. (I was going to say, for black children, which would be accomplishment enough, but anyone who is not overriden by bigotry and stupidity can take inspiration from his story and pride that our society made possible his rise to the presidency.) Beyond all that, he's been a very good president: no personal improprieties, no scandals, no incompetence, no craziness on his part, and an impressive list of accomplishments considering the level of opposition from his opponents. His election is going to be way significant than the first elections of black mayors of large cities, which has proven really significant: future black candidates for any office (males, anyway) are going to get assessed primarily on their qualifications, not on the basis of whether we can risk electing a black guy. With Obama's election, we didn't all get ponies and it's going to take a decade or two to see whether health care fizzles or thrives, but at absolute worst (so far anyway) he's racked up the fewest reasons since Eisenhower for negative comments in future textbooks.

    It's true that Republicans have endless negative comments, but their complaints will eventually fade away completely. In an ideal world, they would all wake up tomorrow to a gigantic kumbaya moment where they realize that they've got the most effective and moral Republican president in power since Eisenhower and that they just won the "how to do health care" and "national security vs civil rights" battles. Their lunatic insistence on twisting themselves into pretzels and denying their own goals so that they can avoid giving Obama any hint of a victory will not be comprehensible to future generations other than as a testament to their stupidity and bigotry.

    On the other hand, I think future generations are going to want to see Obama's rise to the presidency as a huge milestone of social progress, and to use him as the quintessential proof of the greatness of American society and as the best example of the "anyone can rise to be president" story.

  • Ron Byers on January 21, 2013 12:22 AM:

    My own view of this topic is simple. Martin Luther King was a prophet calling us, black and white alike, to take care of one and other. The President has done just that. He has fulfilled that vision wonderfully. He has emerged an American President. That is something that would make Martin Luther King proud. I really don't care that somebody like Harris doesn't think the President measures up to MLK. I don't think MLK would care either. They have different roles. MLK had a dream that the President and all of us should seek to fullfill.

  • low-tech cyclist on January 21, 2013 7:24 AM:

    There's also the reality that, as America's first black President, the last thing he could do was be too obviously black-oriented in his policies. He had to run a very race-neutral Administration; that just went with the territory.

    Even having done so, we all remember the not-so-subtle racial slanders of the Romney campaign, and how they obviously resonated with, um, 47% of the population. If Obama had tried to be MLK, Romney would be President today.

    Instead, Obama did a lot of things that benefited a wide swath of America, and blacks and other minorities benefited as part of that.

  • Chris on January 21, 2013 8:11 AM:

    Good post! I really like it.

  • c u n d gulag on January 21, 2013 8:23 AM:

    What low-tech cyclist said!

    Given the Congress full of Red Dogs, the first two years, he got an amazing amount of things accomplished! Health Care?
    Are you kidding me?
    Sure, ACA ain't perfect, but, the fact that anything related to health care got passed at all, was a minor miracle.

    And, given the Congress the past two years, full of Confederates and dunces, it's amazing he's been able to get ANYthing done!

    If he survives the next 4 years, and there are no major terrorist attacks, or other unforseen tragic events, he will go down in history as the best President since FDR (and LBJ, if it weren't for Vietnam - but, that kind of precludes him from the conversation, imho).

  • Informant on January 21, 2013 9:36 AM:

    Harris contends that Obama has “spoken less about poverty and race than any Democratic president in a generation"

    When the sample size you're comparing Obama with is 1, it's not a very useful comparison.

  • Al on January 29, 2013 2:42 PM:

    Although considered a liberal by all who know me I am more of a pragmatist. When pressed, President Obama has been divisive in manner, substance and style. He is failing to move the nation toward a more egalitarian and pluralistic future. His Presidency is no better, and may turn out to be worse, than that which preceded. Barack Obama did not make himself President, the elected and unelected leaders of the Democratic National Committee selected him, groomed him, supported him. His Presidency is coming up short of the expectations of those who elected him.

  • RobM on January 30, 2013 8:23 PM:

    You based your concslusions on facts you acknowledge but overlook. for example you say, "President Obama can’t unilaterally enact policy;". this is patently false. There are Executive orders and in the case of addressing economic issues there is section 2 of the TARP legislation which is where he obtained the money to lend to the auto industry.

    van Zuylen-Wood's article is specious as well. to argue that in one corner of the universe where the President acted-the auto bailout- is equivalent or even statistically significant, unlike the argument for the ACA, for African Americans is simply a lie. If you measure all auto work related workers the numbers haven't moved significantly. The same holds true for Pell grants. School is out on race to the top.

    A to the fierce backlash that is racism at its finest. Not to acknowledge the detrimental effects it has on the whole country is cowardly for all it does is validate the racism is effective policy for keeping the country from moving forward. It is acknowledging a from of self hatred. Ask yourself, if a black President, not African American can not talk about race who can? Contrast it w/ the contortions the American Taliban, aka, the Republican party, is going through w/ immigration reform. They are doing everything possible to play down their racist afflilations and talk in order to obtain votes yet blacks can't?

    I ask that you rethink your article.