Obama as a racial justice president

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.”

Indeed.

Kathleen Geier

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