Obama and race: life on a high wire

President Obama, guarded on racial issues in his first term, is now speaking out more forcefully. But for the first black president – and the nation – there’s still no more difficult subject.

Pete Souza/White House/AP
Students from William R. Harper High School in Chicago, Ill., listen as President Barack Obama talks with them about the Emancipation Proclamation hanging in the Oval Office, June 5, 2013.

Barack Obama took the podium in the East Room of the White House, as he has done countless times before. But this time was different. The president was flanked by a group of African-American teenage boys from Chicago who reminded him of his younger self. And he spoke in deeply personal terms – about growing up without a father, about getting high, about slacking off at school.

“I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short,” President Obama said in February as he introduced My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative to keep boys and young men of color on the right path. “The only difference [between these boys and me] is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving.”

This isn’t a big new government program, Obama made clear. The money – $200 million over five years – comes from foundations, while a federal task force promotes best practices and Obama provides presidential leverage.

It’s not the kind of War on Poverty Part 2 that many African-American leaders would like to see, lifting up not just children of color but also their unemployed mothers and fathers.  

Still, the rollout of My Brother’s Keeper was a signal moment for the nation’s first black president. Obama had spent most of his political career treading lightly on racial matters, projecting himself as a race-neutral consensus builder, not a champion of a “black agenda.” As president, when asked about high black unemployment or the struggles of black-owned businesses, he has typically replied: “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.”

In fact, in his first two years as president, Obama spoke less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961, according to a study by Daniel Q. Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Obama’s reserved approach on race has brought cries of frustration from the Congressional Black Caucus and African-American academics and leaders. Among black Americans, Obama’s job approval has remained sky-high, though it has dipped somewhat over the years – and the intensity of his support has dropped more.  

Now, well into his second term, Obama is gradually speaking out more on race – both in a personal way and as a policy leader. Partisan gridlock has limited his ability to pass legislation on an array of social issues, from gay rights and immigration to climate change and economic opportunity, leaving him with the bully pulpit and executive action.

But on racial matters, in particular, the fact that Obama’s name will never again appear on a ballot has liberated him. Now he can, at times, be the “president of black America.” Obama talks about the disproportionate arrest and incarceration rate for marijuana use among poor, young blacks and Latinos. He has directed the Justice Department to begin a major clemency push for prisoners serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses – a population that is disproportionately minority.

In April, speaking to the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Obama accused Republicans of passing voter ID laws to suppress the vote, hitting hard on the racial dimension. The last time he addressed the group, in 2011, he was more guarded.

First lady Michelle Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, too, are speaking out more on race. In May, Mrs. Obama traveled to Topeka, Kan., to mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that outlawed school segregation, Brown v. Board of Education. The first lady praised Brown’s legacy – and warned of a return to segregation, both in schools and in everyday life.

Mr. Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general, spoke, too, in a May graduation speech of the dangers of subtle, everyday racism – a greater threat to equality, he said, than the “hateful rants” that make headlines. The White House made clear that Holder was speaking for the administration, amid a rash of racist comments by a Nevada rancher, the owner of a National Basketball Association team, and a police commissioner in small-town New Hampshire.

“These outbursts of bigotry, while deplorable, are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged, or the work that still needs to be done,” Holder said.

For Obama, the guarded approach to race lives on at times. In April, when the Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in public university admissions, White House spokesman Jay Carney offered a nuanced response to a reporter’s question, in contrast to Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s impassioned dissent. Obama himself said nothing.

But Holder was unrestrained, praising Justice Sotomayor’s dissent as “courageous.” That comment, plus the speech in May, signaled a more assertive posture by the attorney general. Early in Obama’s presidency, Holder called America “a nation of cowards” when discussing race. Aides to Obama reportedly asked him to tone it down.   

For all three – the president, first lady, and attorney general – the approach to race has seemed a carefully calibrated enterprise: not so cool as to seem oblivious and alienate minorities, but not so hot as to trigger stereotypes of “angry” black men and women.

In short, there’s no bigger minefield for Obama than race. Early in his tenure, Obama stepped into the controversial arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. simply by answering a question at a press conference. The ensuing uproar – Obama said the police had “acted stupidly” – dominated the news for an entire week, overshadowing health-care reform.

Obama had been president only six months, and the experience left him even more cautious on race, at least until the death of black youth Trayvon Martin in February 2012. A month after his shooting by a neighborhood watch volunteer, as controversy built over authorities’ handling of the case, Obama broke his silence: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” he said. 

By then, Obama was in the fourth year of his presidency, and running for reelection. Critics accused him of using the incident to rally his political base. But clearly, Trayvon’s death touched the president – as have other tragedies involving children, like the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Conn. In July 2013, several days after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder in Trayvon’s killing, Obama made a surprise appearance at the White House briefing.

“Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago,” the president said, most memorably.

He spoke for 20 minutes, without a teleprompter, in strikingly personal terms.

“I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” he added, noting racial disparities in the application of criminal laws.

He recounted typical experiences for black men: being followed in a department store, walking across the street and hearing car doors lock, seeing a woman clutch her purse nervously in an elevator. “That includes me,” at least before becoming a senator, he said.

Obama had shared such thoughts before in his books. Even the white grandmother who helped raise him was afraid of black men who passed her on the street, Obama has acknowledged. But on this day, he was the president of black America.

Obama’s remarks also brought home the ubiquity of race in his presidency, a factor that he must consider in nearly everything he says or does, unlike any American president before him. This, despite the hopeful notions of some – mostly white – observers that with Obama’s election, the dream of a “post-racial America” may be upon us. But, in fact, as academics Michael Tesler and David O. Sears observed in their 2010 book, “Obama’s Race,” his election “may well have been the watershed to another of America’s periodic hyperracial political eras.”

• • • 

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which aimed to end discrimination on the basis of race and sex in employment, education, and other spheres of daily life. Nearly 50 years later, on April 10, 2014, the nation’s first black president marked the anniversary by speaking at a civil rights summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. Obama noted the significance of his presence.   

“Because of the civil rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody – not all at once, but they swung open…,” the president said. “And that’s why I’m standing here today – because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”

Over the course of his presidency, Obama has spoken at many events commemorating milestones in black history – the 1963 March on Washington, the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the groundbreaking for the new Smithsonian museum on African-American history.

Last November, when the president didn’t travel to Gettysburg to speak at an event commemorating the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s most famous address, conservatives bashed him. (A White House official cited scheduling issues over the broken Obamacare website.) Never mind that Obama reveres Lincoln and has a bust of the 16th president in the Oval Office.  

Sometimes, it seems, he can’t win. But Republicans, too, have been stung by the racial aspect of Obama’s presidency. Racist elements of the GOP’s tea party wing have hurt the party’s image. “Birthers,” who still insist Obama was born in Kenya, add a circus element to politics. Provocative comments, by even prominent Republicans, can distract (example: Newt Gingrich in 2010, when he said that the president may hold a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview).

Nearly every day, one headline or another highlights the racial dimension of life in the Obama era.  

“Did race play a role in shutdown?” asked the headline on a Washington Post blog item by Mr. Tesler, a political scientist at Brown University, after the government shutdown last October.

Tesler’s analysis suggests it might have. He lines up research measuring the levels of “racial resentment” in each congressional district with how each member voted on the deal to end the shutdown, and finds a correlation.

“To be sure, these results do not imply that the shutdown was primarily driven by racial prejudice against the president,” Tesler notes. But he concludes that “the much publicized divisions within the Republican Party correspond to a divide in their constituents’ racialized attitudes.”

Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, faced major blowback in March when he spoke in a radio interview about the “culture” of inner cities and of men not working or “even thinking about working.” Critics accused him of using code words to impugn black men.

Not one known for racial insensitivity, Congressman Ryan called his comment “inarticulate.” But he didn’t back away from his larger point: that the government safety net inadvertently puts people in a “poverty trap that builds barriers to work.” Still, it was another bad Republican moment on race.

Democrats, at times, seem happy to fan the flames. Twice in May, retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia invoked race when he accused Republicans of opposing Obama and his policies because he’s the “wrong color.” An incensed Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin accused Senator Rockefeller of playing the “race card,” and held firm that his opposition to the Affordable Care Act has nothing to do with Obama’s race. But the damage was done. The headline was written. 

Americans even diverge racially in their interpretation of Obama’s low job approval. A TIPP poll conducted for The Christian Science Monitor in late May and early June found that among whites, 34 percent agree that “Obama’s approval ratings are low because some Americans don’t like the idea of a black president.” Among blacks, the figure is 61 percent, and among Hispanics, 45 percent. The divergence along party lines was even greater: 64 percent of Democrats agreed with the statement, versus 18 percent of Republicans.

A recent MTV poll showed that US Millennials have distinctly post-racial views. For example, a majority of 14-to-24-year-olds, regardless of race, said that “having a black president demonstrates that racial minorities have the same opportunities as white people.”

Whether those views will hold as Millennials age is unclear. But among the larger public, the post-racial vision of America seems as distant as ever.

• • • 

When Obama ran for president, he followed the same playbook as John F. Kennedy: Play down the feature that makes Americans uncomfortable. For then-Senator Kennedy, it was his Roman Catholic faith, and questions over whether he would owe allegiance to the Vatican above the US. From the beginning, Kennedy’s campaign was organized to distance him from Catholic issues and images.

Kennedy’s speech on faith in September 1960 was seen as essential to his election, just as Obama’s speech on race was to his, after provocative comments by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, came to light. As president, Kennedy continued to resist catering to a “Catholic agenda.”

At the start of his political career in the Illinois state Senate, Obama carved out a profile as a coalition builder, working across ideological and racial lines. Perhaps his most racially oriented initiative aimed to restrain police misconduct. In keeping with most black politicians, he opposed welfare reform and the death penalty. But when he ran for the US Senate, those positions softened. He still opposed the death penalty, but approved it for “heinous crimes.”

On affirmative action, which Obama has said “undoubtedly” helped him in his academic career, he has said his daughters should not be eligible. That suggests a system that is class-based rather than race-based.

“He moved toward the Democratic Party that Bill Clinton established,” says Robert C. Smith, a political scientist at San Francisco State University and author of the book “John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and the Politics of Ethnic Incorporation and Avoidance.” 

In the words of conservative black scholar Shelby Steele, Obama is a “bargainer” – an African-American who doesn’t rub America’s ugly racial past in white people’s faces in exchange for not holding race against him – and not a “challenger,” like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose racial demands are central to his appeal.  

At the end of Obama’s first term, Frederick C. Harris of Columbia University in New York reflected the views of the liberal black intelligentsia when he described the Obama presidency as marking the decline of a political vision “centered on challenging racial inequality.”

“The tragedy is that black elites – from intellectuals and civil rights leaders to politicians and clergy members – have acquiesced to this decline, seeing it as the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House,” Mr. Harris wrote in The New York Times.

White House officials reject this critique, especially given where the country was when Obama took office. If one considers his bold actions early on, both on the economy and in passing the Affordable Care Act, “oftentimes you’ll find that communities of color disproportionately benefited,” says one official.

“The steps that [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan took in our public school system, to really reward success and achievement, disproportionately benefit children of color, because that’s who oftentimes goes to our public schools,” the official adds.

In fact, the whole of Obama’s economic agenda – a higher minimum wage, job training programs, funding for infrastructure – would benefit minorities disproportionately, if Republicans would go along, Democrats say.

• • • 

When Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper, he spoke again about Trayvon Martin. But fatherhood, and his drive for more societal investment in young men of color, has long been a theme in the Obama narrative. His first book, “Dreams from My Father,” is all about identity and belonging – and at the heart of that struggle, his absent father.

“I believe he had a hole in his heart from being abandoned by his dad as a child,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House aide and longtime friend of Obama, in an interview.

She recounts the Oval Office visit last year by teenage boys from Hyde Park Academy in Chicago, participants in a mentoring program called Becoming a Man. Obama had visited with the boys in Chicago earlier in the year, then invited them to come see him. It was around Father’s Day, and the boys handed him a card they had signed.

“One of the guys said to him, ‘You know, I’ve never signed a Father’s Day card,’ and he said, ‘Neither have I,’ ” Ms. Jarrett says.

Pictures of Obama interacting with young black men and boys will be one of the enduring images of his presidency – snapshots that capture the aspiration of many, including Jarrett, who hopes that “little black boys grow up saying, ‘I want to be like him.’ ” A photo of Obama stooping in the Oval Office to allow a black boy to touch his hair has hung in the White House for years, as other photos have come and gone.

Supporters of My Brother’s Keeper call the initiative a good first step, but express concern that there won’t be adequate funding over the long haul.

“It’s just going to take persistence and continued involvement,” says George Garrow, executive director of Concerned Black Men, which has mentoring programs around the country.

The Obamas will remain committed to the program after they leave the White House, aides say. But even with a seemingly feel-good initiative, Obama hasn’t escaped criticism. Conservatives suggest the program may be unconstitutional for its race- and gender-consciousness.

On the liberal end, some ask, what took so long? Others are upset that it's only about boys while girls of color also struggle. Many black scholars label it “symbolic.” Some use harsher language, and accuse Obama of “self-hectoring” when he lectures black men about becoming better fathers – a practice he backed away from after becoming president. But others are sympathetic.

“I think the way most African-Americans see it, Obama is doing the best he can, given Republican resistance,” says Marvin King Jr., a political scientist at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

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