Obama's quest to leave a lasting mark on race

His more assertive rhetoric, coupled with efforts to change policies on mass incarceration and segregation, signals a growing focus on an issue very personal to him.

Carlos Barria/REUTERS
President Obama arrives to board Air Force One for travel to New Orleans from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, August 27, 2015.

Of all the issues Barack Obama has tackled as president, race is certainly the most sensitive – and personal.

Now on the homestretch, President Obama continues to break new ground. He is tackling mass incarceration and racial segregation in the suburbs. In July, he became the first president to visit a federal prison, and commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic.

Obama’s rhetoric has also changed. In a fiery speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in July, he made the case for battling societal racism without calling on “brothers” to “pull up their pants,” or making other so-called personal responsibility arguments. In June, he used the N-word in an interview to make a point: that curing racism is “not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.”

“I now categorize Obama as anti-racist, not race-neutral,” says Robert C. Smith, an expert on African-American politics at San Francisco State University. “I don’t think he would want textbooks to list the first black president in the race-neutral category.”

Obama’s focus on racial matters is growing at a time of heightened racial tension in the country, fueling the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and a rash of fatal shootings of police officers.

Public concern over racism is on the rise. In August, the Pew Research Center found that 50 percent of Americans call racism a “big problem,” the highest level in at least 20 years.

“I think it’s good that the spotlight is on the issue, because that’s how we make progress,” said senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett in an interview right after the poll was released, though she was commenting in general, not on the survey, because she hadn’t seen it yet. 

Ms. Jarrett also talked about the pressure Obama has faced throughout his presidency to address race in a full-throated way. “Our culture only changes when within our hearts, each of our hearts, we change,” she said. “That’s not something [Obama] alone can do.”

But Obama clearly cares deeply about the future of young minority men in America. Just watch the poignant conversation he recorded in February for StoryCorps with 18-year-old Noah McQueen. For 25 minutes, they talk about growing up without a father, about heading down the wrong path – in Mr. McQueen’s case that included multiple arrests and time in juvenile detention – and about deciding to straighten out.

“One of the things you’ve discovered is that you’ve got this strength inside yourself,” Obama tells McQueen.  

In June, Obama presided over the first “graduation” of the White House mentoring program under his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, launched last year to help boys and young men of color lead productive lives. McQueen is one of nine participants to graduate, and is now a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Broderick Johnson, a senior Obama adviser who chairs the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, says that Obama has spent a lot of time with those in the program, “particularly for someone with his schedule.”

“It’s clear that he has impacted all their lives, but they impact our lives, too, because they give the president and all of us a great deal of hope,” says Mr. Johnson. “These aren’t young men born with silver spoons in their mouths, and they’ve overcome in many cases pretty extraordinary odds already.”

Since February 2014, My Brother’s Keeper has expanded to more than 230 communities around the country, including 20 native American communities, and has pledges of $500 million from foundations and other private sources. No federal money is involved. A separate My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, which launched in May, is providing corporate support.

Johnson singles out Philadelphia and Indianapolis for their aggressive My Brother’s Keeper action plans, with programs that assist minority boys “from cradle to college and career-readiness.” Activities include “hackathons,” which promote careers in technology. Indianapolis is noteworthy because it has a Republican mayor and has attracted funding from the local Chamber of Commerce.

“That goes to, certainly, appreciation by the business community in Indianapolis that My Brother’s Keeper is an important economic imperative as much as it is a moral imperative,” says Johnson.

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