On Friday, June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a ruling that in all likelihood will be remembered as the greatest civil rights achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency. And as such, a strong argument can be made that his appointments of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Court are the seminal civil rights acts of his presidency. And yet, I suspect any proponent of civil rights couldn’t help but harbor mixed feelings while watching cable news’ pervasive coverage of the Obergefell decision and the president’s trip to South Carolina to eulogize the slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney. The stark contrast between the elation in Washington and the anguish in Charleston highlights, yet again, our continuing struggle to find the words—and the will—to address the ongoing scourge of racism in America.
Those who know me well will readily admit that I’ve been fairly critical of our president’s refusal to address race with a degree of rigor on par with the nature of its ongoing impact on access to jobs, socio-economic mobility, and opportunity more generally. In response to those in the African-American community who have called this president to task for his lack of leadership on this issue, Obama has repeatedly reminded them that, “I am not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America,” and that as such, he lacks a mandate with which to give preferential attention to the difficulties of one particular group. As I understand it, the Obama doctrine on alleviating the unique problems facing the African-American community—problems the existence of which he readily acknowledges—is to take a broad, progressive hand to policy-making with the expectation that solutions designed for struggling Americans writ large will also trickle down to African-Americans in particular. I respectfully submit that this brand of policy-making by indirection, ironically enough, is not vastly different in theory from the “trickle-down” program of supply-side economics championed by Reaganites in the 1980s with whom I’d be willing to guess President Obama couldn’t be more idealistically opposed.
On occasion, without anything approaching a united front, members of the African-American community have questioned the efficacy of a programme of policies not narrowly tailored to meet the specific needs and challenges of this community, but in failing to consistently question his approach—or propose specific solutions of their own—the African-American community has failed to hold President Obama properly accountable. Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, acknowledged as much in autumn of 2011 during an especially intense period of frustration with President Obama’s failure to specifically tackle the crisis of black unemployment: “If Bill Clinton had been in the White House and had failed to address this problem, we probably would be marching on the White House.”
In the complex web that is the black family structure, fathers and uncles serve two critically important though entirely different functions, and on the basis of anecdotal evidence from friends of other racial and ethnic groups, I suspect the same may be more or less true of families outside the African-American community as well. Uncle Joe sits you down and tells you about yourself and the reasons why you’ve fallen short in a tough-loving, winding sort of narrative that often seems more about him than you. Upon completion, you find he’s provided not an answer to your problems, but rather the tools with which to fix them. In contrast, we often look to our fathers—and father figures—for narrowly tailored, self-executing solutions, and a little sympathy too. We ask our fathers to draw upon their superior intellect, and extensive practice in problem solving, in handing us a step-by-step analysis of and answer key to the issues we’ve been unsuccessful in tackling on our own. For whatever reason—and this reason is part of a debate which I suspect could easily fill several encyclopedia-sized volumes—black folks assumed they were adopting another father when they voted for Barack Obama in 2008. And so naturally, they became a little peeved when Uncle Barry showed up for more Sunday dinners than Daddy Obama.
On September 24, 2011, Uncle Barry traveled the short distance between 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the Washington Convention Center to address the Congressional Black Caucus at its annual Phoenix Awards Dinner. After spending a good deal of his allotted time listing his administration’s accomplishments and plugging his American Jobs Act, and comparatively little in recognition of the particulars of the peculiar black unemployment problem (he notes that the African-American unemployment rate rose to nearly 17% but neglected to mention that this rate was approximately twice the national average), he concluded with a tough-loving—and, as some have argued, out-of-touch—exhortation that black folks frustrated with the speed of visible socio-economic progress in their communities “take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.”
Less than two years later on May 19, 2013, Uncle Barry flew to Atlanta to deliver the commencement address—and some more tough-lovin’—to that year’s graduating class of African-American men at Morehouse College. In that speech, the same president who several months before infamously declared, “I’m not the president of black America,” proceeded to tell black American men that notwithstanding the continuing “bitter legacy of slavery and segregation,” there could be no room for these men to make “excuses” for the tough road they’d have to travel as black men in America. He also quoted a well-known Morehouse fraternity adage that says, “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments to nothingness.”
Though well meaning, and assuredly intended to prompt productive action on the part of its recipients, Uncle Barry’s provocations to the Congressional Black Caucus and the graduating class of Morehouse College note the uniqueness of the ongoing African-American plight in America but fail to acknowledge that, as a consequence of that uniqueness, a narrowly tailored solution is needed to remedy that plight. The president’s now familiar “we’re-all-in-this-together” approach to addressing the needs of various interest groups is problematic because it glosses over—and therefore fails to adequately address—the distinct nature of the difficulties various demographic groups still face. No single piece of legislation or programme of action will erase the ongoing and uncommon challenges faced by African-Americans, Hispanics, LGBTQs or any other group still fighting entrenched, institutional forms of discrimination.
But despite President Obama’s hesitance to take an aggressive stance on remediating uniquely African-American problems, African-Americans have made Obama’s choice in this regard far too easy. Instead of articulating point-by-point requests for alleviating specifically African-American predicaments that the president must accept, reject or ignore, and subsequently holding him to the fire to execute those requests, we’ve continually granted him a “pass.” Whether in recognition of his intractable struggle with a Republican-dominated Congress that has repeatedly—and at times, with a measure of unprecedented cocksureness—refused to work with him, or out of fear of retribution from other African-Americans for speaking out against their beloved leader, we’ve not once with a united voice called this president to task for his refusal to take up black issues with the kind of urgency that Obama himself seems to acknowledge is required. These shortcomings—Obama’s hesitance and the pass we’ve heretofore granted him—are further compounded by a sense among many Americans that the advent of a black president, and the increasing presence of African-Americans in positions of power that were previously in the exclusive purview of white Americans, evidences the total riddance of racism from the social, political, and economic institutions controlling access to jobs, power and opportunity.
It is for those reasons that the rare appearance of Daddy Obama in Charleston, South Carolina last Friday was so meaningful for African-Americans across this country. On that day, for the first time in a long time when it comes to the thorny question of racism, these Americans were proud of their president because in eulogizing Reverend Pinckney, he recognized the subtle—and therefore virulently insidious—ways in which the continuing problem of racism operates to keep black folks on the margins of society and the workforce. In the aftermath of so many racially charged tragedies, what was needed was a sympathetic father figure, not the tough-loving uncle—and thankfully, the former showed up: “Maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.”
On Friday, Daddy Obama spoke about the importance of not “avoid[ing] uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society” by “go[ing] back to business as usual” and not “settl[ing] for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change” because “that’s how we lose our way again.” And he was right. It is precisely because we fail to consistently press for the extirpation of racism and those who surgically wield the tools of socio-economic oppression that the latter remain utterly comfortable in practicing their dark craft. And this is why it is so critically important that the president—and everyone else with a voice and a stake—speak out continuously and compellingly about the problem of race in this country, not just after disaster strikes. The consequence of failing to do so is that folks aren’t forced to take sides, and that’s not okay.
If the history of the struggle for civil rights in America has taught us nothing else, we’ve learned that it is only through the application of firm, unrelenting economic and social pressure that folks who’d rather remain comfortably silent are forced to become publicly vocal in a way that forces them, others—and their racism—into the light for public scrutiny and repudiation. This is the only way to reduce the frequency with which a less qualified Johnny is called back for a job while the plainly more qualified Jamal is left wondering, “why not me?” Take a moment to think through how this outcome weakens both of them, and America. All of us, including our president, must finally draw a line in the sand which says either you’re a party to the solution or one who aides and abets its perpetration whether by affirmative acts or through the cowardice of silence.
The ultimate truth to be drawn from the continuance of the civil rights movement in 2015 is that laws are of limited utility as a means of effecting change. Rather than eliminating discrimination, they often push hate into the weeds where it’s difficult to identify and thus more difficult to destroy. Until a critical mass of Americans take up the daily fight against discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation, we will be left with the harsh reality that laws—particularly in the short term—are imperfect tools for changing hearts and minds. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board came down just a hair over 61 years ago, and yet, Americans still struggle with how to start a productive conversation about race in this country. This is as disgraceful as it is saddening.
It is, of course, entirely possible that both Daddy Obama and Uncle Barry are working together to effect an outcome in American race relations far greater than anything the rest of us have ever dreamed one man could accomplish in eight years. And considering the unreal odds he overcame to become even a viable candidate for president in 2008, anyone would be a fool to presume that any accomplishment sits beyond his reach. Consider the manner in which he disposed of his Reverend Wright problem during his first run for president. During that affair, we all witnessed the masterful performance of an eminently skilled communicator holding a pass from his would-be African-American detractors in his back pocket. Short of then Senator Richard Nixon’s miraculous 1952 Checkers speech which saved him from the abyss of political oblivion, I’m not sure Americans have seen a more masterfully executed pivot from a politician seeking one of our nation’s two highest offices.
At the same time, we’d do well to note that the transformation in President Obama’s thinking on the issue of marriage rights for gay Americans was not inevitable and did not occur in a vacuum. It was in large measure the consequence, to be sure, of the pervasive and consistent pressure he received from the gay rights lobby and penultimately, his own vice president.
But setting aside for the time being the possibility of some unforeseen coup de grâs from our president in the area of black civil rights, in the interim, I’d only ask that our president take to heart the advice he so enthusiastically offered the men of Morehouse in 2013: “there’s no longer any room for excuses.” What we need from you, Mr. President, is sustained leadership in the difficult task of fighting the softer forms of racism still marring our institutions, preserving insidious systems of preference that penalize on the basis of the arbitrary accidents of one’s birth rather than the substance of one’s talent, and which operate to impede more widespread access to opportunity.
Below is a roadmap charting how we might continue moving toward meeting the challenges around race discussed above.
First: Presidential Activism. With or without Congress, President Obama is the most powerful person on earth. He ought to use his remaining months as president exercising the unparalleled influence of his bully pulpit to keep the race issue in headlines, stressing its insidiousness and personally guaranteeing that the deployment of racism in violation of the law will not be tolerated. President Obama has already used his executive power successfully over the course of his presidency to address social emergencies (recall his use of the executive order in the sphere of immigration policy) and, with our help, he should give ongoing consideration to how he can utilize the substantial means at his disposal to effect visible progress in African-American lives before he leaves office in January 2017. My Brother’s Keeper is a great first step!
Second: Law Enforcement and Innovation. We must all be vigilant—from members of the Executive Branch of the United States down to each ordinary citizen—in ensuring the (a) proper enforcement of existing laws in the arena of race discrimination and (b) revision of laws and development of social programs as appropriate, and within Constitutional limitations, to guarantee the robust protection of civil rights and the existence of a direct nexus between the letter of the law and the specific needs of the African-American fight against institutional forms of discrimination in particular.
Third: Youth Activism. Major change almost always flows from the intransigent demands of youthful activists. To ensure the success of the first and second prongs above, the next generation of socio-economic policy and thought leaders must (a) obtain from President Obama and his successors a public commitment—and then hold them publically accountable—to reduce the prevalence of racism in American institutions controlling access to jobs and other opportunities and (b) along with each president, think innovatively around ways to gradually extirpate racism—particularly the softer, more insidious variety—from our institutions and society.
There are those who will read the above and say, “You’re out of line David S. Mitchell. Who are you to speak to our president this way? Don’t you think he has enough on his plate?” Others will remind me that it would be virtually impossible to keep one issue constantly on the agenda as America faces so many threats and challenges both at home and abroad. And when they do, I will gently ask them to open a history book and point to one president elected during the last one hundred years that wasn’t required to address multiple full-bodied—and often conflicting—issues at the same time. And after that, I will remind them that JFK and LBJ surely made similar arguments to a certain Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—at a time when our nation struggled with just as many domestic quandaries and international commitments—when King reminded them, both in personal meetings and public speeches, and whether addressing the problem of race or the war in Vietnam, of what he called “the fierce urgency of now:”
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time….We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’