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Since President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008, he's been both elevated and burdened by one popular title in particular: America's first black president. Elevated in that Obama broke the ultimate political color line. And with that, he also elevated the hopes and dreams of millions of African-Americans.
But Obama is also burdened with the label of "America's first black president." Because when he talks about race, he does so in cautious, measured terms. We heard that caution in Obama's most famous speech about race.
Now, in 2014, as President Obama looks towards his last 18 months in the White House, Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy asks a provocative question: has Obama failed black America? In the recent issue of Politico Magazine, Kennedy writes: "Obama said that the subject of race was too important to ignore and implicitly promised to confront it if he won the presidency. He has not."
Randall Kennedy, Harvard law professor and author of "Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency."
Michael Jeffries, associate professor of American studies at Wellesley and author of, "Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America." He tweets @M_P_Jeffries.
On whether President Obama has "failed" black America:
Randall Kennedy: "I do not think that Barack Obama has failed black America. I think there's a reason why the great mass of black Americans support Barack Obama — have supported him and always will support him. He is the Jackie Robinson of American politics. He did something quite extraordinary — a black man finding a way to become president of the United States, it's absolutely extraordinary. Black America yearned for a black person who would be a serious, thoughtful person who could win enough votes to take the White House. And Barack Obama has done that. And whether you agree with him or not about everything, he certainly has been a serious, smart, articulate, thoughtful president. So I do not think that Barack Obama has failed black America."
On frustration with President Obama's political calculus:
Michael Jeffries: "I think we need to look at that idea of transformation and kind of examine what it means. Are we talking about policy transformation or changes in rhetoric and discourse and the way that we think about, talk about and ultimately understand what race is? If you understand part of the president's job to be to change the way that we think about race and racism, I think you can make a very strong case that he has not used his platform in order to do that — to fundamentally shift the way America thinks about race and racism. If, however, you understand his job as the head of the executive branch to be ushering policy and generating support for policy that will ultimately make it through the legislative branch, I think you could say that he's done about as well as he could given the obstructionism by his Republican colleagues."
On President Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech:
RK: "The fact of the matter is, that speech — though it has been anthologized, though it has been much praised — as far as I'm concerned, that speech was a speech intended to tamp down a particular controversy. I do not think that speech really said a whole lot and I don't think that many of the president's speeches, especially with respect to race, has said a whole lot. I'm not damning him. Again, he's an electoral politician, first and foremost. He's not running a seminar about racial thought in America. He's trying to be president of the United States... It's fine banalities, I don't think it said a whole lot... It all depends on what you're trying to accomplish... He's trying to be president of the United States and I think, given all that he's had to face, he's done a pretty good job."
MJ: "I certainly agree, in part, about the purpose of that speech. No question, it was to tamp down the controversy during the election with Rev. Wright. However, I do think that we heard a few things during that speech that we hadn't heard from previous people in his position. For example, one of the things that he says in the speech is, quite simply, 'Discrimination against black people is real as a historical fact, and it is real today.' That's something that, for me, was a bit of a revelation — for a presidential candidate to say that — to talk about race in those kinds of terms. Now the trouble is, when explaining precisely how the cycle of racism continues to operate today, he gives sort of equal balance to historical and contemporary discrimination and all these kinds of cultural and behavioral explanations for racial inequality that tend to place the onus for improvement on black people... Those of us who have studied this for our entire careers understand that the balance should clearly be in the opposite direction, where we're addressing institutional racism and systemic inequality first because we know those are the first movers in producing some of these cultural and behavioral outcomes, right? We know that residential segregation and mass incarceration and under-funding of public schools — we know that those are the first things in this cycle."
On Barack Obama's comment, "Trayvon Martin could have been me.":
RK: "To tell you the truth, I do not get much from those statements... What did he say? It's not as if he was suggesting some sort of direction that we should move in, it's not as if he was saying, 'Therefore we should do this.' It's not as if he were saying, 'I'm president of the United States, I'm in charge of the FBI. I'm in charge of the federal bureau of prisons.' He has power to push things in a given direction... That comment, as far as I'm concerned, provided us with a rorschach test in which anybody can say anything they want about the comments that he made. Now, again, the president is limited, maybe there wasn't all that much he could say, but if you're just asking me about what he did say, it doesn't mean a whole lot to me, actually."
MJ: "So as a thought experiment, right, we might think about what he could have said or how he could have added to the comment, right? Instead of trying to guess what he was implying by saying it, right? So if he had made that comment and then said, right, 'What I'm trying to say is the way that these young men are stereotyped as thugs and criminals is fundamentally wrong. There is nothing thuggish or criminal about a young black man simply because of the color of his skin. And I am proof positive of that. And if you think this child was a thug, you need to think about the way you perceive innocent American lives and totally reconsider it.' Right? He could have made that sort of statement, but he did not."
- "The conspicuous disproportionality of blacks in handcuffs, jails and prisons is an urgent matter. In 2010, the imprisonment rate for blacks was 4.6 times that of whites—a greater magnitude of racial disparity than in almost any another arena."
- "Obama has a chance to reinforce and build on that when he travels to Chicago today to deliver a speech on urban gun violence. But the speech won't realize its full potential or leave a lasting legacy if the president doesn't directly address race and condemn systemic racial oppression in a manner we have not yet heard from him."
This segment aired on July 9, 2014.
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