Introduction: Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term

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.

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Paul Glastris

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