Is Obama good for black people?
Is President Barack Obama good for black people? While Obama heads into Election Day with strong support from black voters, some black intellectuals are pressing that question.
In a reproachful op-ed article in the Sunday New York Times, flanked by a large drawing of a black man literally muzzled by an Obama campaign placard, Columbia professor Fredrick C. Harris proposes that “black elites” and voters have effectively conspired to mute criticism of the president because of his race. This argument is plain wrong.
Obama’s presidency, Harris argues, marks “the decline” of a politics devoted to “challenging racial inequality” — a failure facilitated by black America itself. “Black elites” and black constituencies, Harris asserts, have capitulated to a president who does little for them — simply for the “pride” of “having a black family in the White House.”
That is strong stuff. Let’s begin with Harris’s analysis of black Americans’ relationship to Obama — which doesn’t reflect political reality.
There is scant evidence that successful black political figures receive automatic racial support. For example, since replacing Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Thomas has never been welcomed, let alone celebrated, by the black community. Other prominent black figures, from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Artur Davis to Representative Allen West (R-Fla.), have not engendered anything close to the enthusiasm that Obama inspires. As for Harris’s depiction of “black elites,” the fact is that many did not back Obama in the first place.
A majority of the Congressional Black Caucus actually endorsed Clinton, over Obama, at the start of the 2008 primaries. It took a detailed argument and the demonstration of a tangible coalition, not skin color, for Obama to win over the most important black political elites in the federal government.
Meanwhile, rank-and-file black voters typically vote for Democrats. In the past several presidential races, nine out of 10 black voters backed Democrats. When Obama ran in 2008, he boosted the Democrats’ share of all votes by 5 points and the share of black votes by 7 points, compared to 2004.
So Democrats had similarly high black support in the past two elections, regardless of their nominee’s race. If nine out of 10 political elites are standing by Obama, that trend basically matches their grass-roots constituents, and is not unique to this presidency.
But in electoral politics, loyalty can be costly. Consistent base voters don’t have much leverage over their party. Anyone who can read an exit poll knows that Democrats worry more about losing white gun owners than, say, environmentalists, Jews or blacks.
It is another thing, however, to declare that even as black Americans are voting just like they usually do, those voting patterns are now driven by racial pride. Purveyors of this argument risk looking like a leftist John Sununu, Romney’s campaign co-chairman, who recently reduced former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Obama endorsement to racial solidarity. Why is it any better to graft the same rationale on the views or votes of “black elites”?
Whatever the motivations of Obama’s black supporters, however, it is certainly legitimate to assess this administration’s effect on black Americans before Election Day. On that score, Harris’s arguments, which echo prominent critics like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, can be assessed on three levels.
The core concerns are that Obama’s domestic agenda is insufficient for: (1) advancing black Americans explicitly, such as civil rights laws; (2) helping black Americans generally, for example, by countering wealth inequality; and (3) supporting black Americans symbolically, such as using the bully pulpit to tackle race.
Harris finds Obama lacking in each category. I would suggest a score of two out of three.
On programs that explicitly benefit black citizens, Obama has taken several strong stances.
He instructed the Justice Department to defend affirmative action before the Supreme Court this year, asserting that racial opportunity programs were vital to the national interest. The Obama administration’s brief evoked the “overwhelmingly white officer corps” overseeing black soldiers in Vietnam, arguing that such a disparity “undermined the military’s very legitimacy by fueling ‘popular perceptions of racial minorities serving as ‘cannon fodder’ for white military leaders.’” (As the administration made that full-throated case, Republican nominee Mitt Romney took a safer route, refusing to take any position on the issue.)
Harris’s article mentions affirmative action three times, accusing Obama of “sparse and halting” comments on the issue, and lamenting that “‘post-racial’ Democratic politics” have not prevented “the Supreme Court from eroding… affirmative action.” Oddly, Harris never mentions that Obama used the power of his presidency to advocate the program in court. (Readers, in fact, might draw the opposite conclusion.)
Obama has also applied affirmative action to his own appointments, building a diverse Cabinet and tapping the first black attorney general and the first Latina Supreme Court justice. Obama’s administration staked out firm civil rights positions against voter ID laws, which can disenfranchise black voters. It also blocked a proposed redistricting map in Texas this year, because it would have curbed the political power of minority voters. (A federal court recently upheld that assertive maneuver.)
It’s also true, of course, that in contrast to the early Civil Rights era, the Supreme Court has now taken many remedial programs off the table. That includes school integration and government contracts for minority-owned companies. So while fewer race-specific policy options are available under current law, it would be wrong to conclude that this administration is not invoking the remedies still available.
More broadly, while black Americans still face persistent disparities in poverty, education and opportunity, it is baffling to hear the idea that Obama’s domestic agenda has left them behind. The numbers show his policies have been unusually beneficial for black and poor voters, by historical standards.
Dollar for dollar, Obama’s tax policies have been the most progressive — the best for poor people — of any president in the last 30 years. From the end of the Bush administration to the first year of Obama’s term, the poorest fifth of Americans saw their federal taxes slashed by 80 percent.
Compared to every other bracket, in fact, “the lowest fifth of earners benefited the most” under Obama’s programs, as the Washington Post reported. (More black Americans are in the bottom fifth of earners than any other income bracket.) That provided meaningful help for the most vulnerable people in the recession.
This policy approach also constitutes “redistribution,” to use a toxic political term. Yet Obama sold his tax reforms on stimulative and universal economic grounds, understandably, not as an explicitly liberal or racial program. Other “general” policies include the health care bill and the stimulus package, which provided more non-discretionary domestic spending than the last several Democratic administrations.
All that doesn’t even touch on Obama’s obstructed proposals, like the American Jobs Act, in which the president advocated, before a special joint session of Congress, for more spending on infrastructure and cities around the nation.
The federal government could, of course, do more to address the pervasive inequality and persistent injustice in our economy. Poverty, mortgage reform, economic aid targeting recidivism, and countering the racial inequity in Social Security have all fallen off the radar. In order to view Obama’s first term as totally insufficient for marginalized communities, however, one would either have to ignore the numbers, or grade on a curve ignoring the performance of a string of recent presidents.
Third, there is the symbolic but consequential way that a president can embrace the goals of racial progress.
“Obama has had little to say on concerns specific to blacks,” Harris writes, and has “talked about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961,” according to one study.
Obama has certainly de-emphasized race as president and throughout his political career. That is a contrast from previous Democratic presidents, from Bill Clinton’s 1996 call for a “national conversation” on race, to Jimmy Carter visiting civil rights leader Vernon Jordan after an assassination attempt in 1980, to Lyndon B. Johnson legitimizing black civil rights leaders by welcoming them to the White House and embracing their rhetoric by telling Congress, after police attacked protesters in Selma, “We shall overcome.”
Each of those symbolic steps mattered; historians still debate how much they laid pivotal groundwork for more tangible breakthroughs. In a less racially polarized climate, perhaps a black president would embrace such symbolism, too — a theme explored by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ influential Atlantic essay, “Fear of a Black President.”
But on the three levels for a black agenda – explicit, general and symbolic – it seems safe to place symbolism lower on the scorecard for the practical impact on citizens. At least, that’s the judgment made by many black voters, who are keenly aware that Obama has been governing without a symbolic emphasis on race.
In an apparently accidental irony, however, Harris concludes his op-ed by seizing the mantle of concrete substance over symbolism. “Sadly, when it comes to the Obama presidency and black America,” he writes, “symbols and substance have too often been assumed to be one and the same.”
That is exactly backwards. Whatever else happens, Obama’s first term delivered an ambitious domestic agenda, with tax, spending, health care and civil rights policies that benefited black Americans more than recent administrations in either party — just usually without making a sound.
PHOTO: Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama cheer during a rally in East Rutherford, New Jersey, April 2, 2008. Jason Reed / Reuters