In response to my post about Hillary Rodham Clinton the other day, several people — including Rebecca Spiff, in comments here — wrote to remind me that President Obama has been pretty terrible on a number of racial justice issues. Fair enough. I thought it was worth taking a look at some of what Obama’s done and what the landscape of racial justice looks like as he leaves office.
From my perspective, I’d chalk up these in the category of “accomplishments” toward racial justice for Obama:
- Symbolic Barrier Busted. Until Barack Obama was elected president, it was merely a theoretical idea that a black person could be president of the United States. It’s hard to know how to measure the impact of this on the world, it could be that it has an aspirational effect (also difficult to measure).
- Aspirational. For young people born after 2007 or so, a black president is all they have ever known of the U.S. Perhaps this will aspire one young African American, like Marquis Govan – the inspiring 11 year old from Ferguson, Missouri - to run for the highest office in the land.
- Speeches. President Obama has given some amazing speeches, a few of them about race, and one in speech in particular that stands out.
And, now for his policies, which have not done much to advance racial justice:
- still hasn’t closed Guantánamo prison, a major campaign promise, and which remains filled with people from the Middle East and fuels the global hatred of the U.S.;
- refused to prosecute Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld for war crimes, and even granted immunity to CIA torturers. Wars and torture campaigns that were conducted predominantly against black and brown people across the globe;
- increased drone strikes, killing almost 2,500 (as of January 2015) black and brown people in other countries;
- set a new record for the number of deportations, deporting more immigrants than any other U.S. president;
- didn’t hold the financial industry accountable for the subprime mortgage disaster that disproportionately targeted African American homeowners and caused a staggering loss of black wealth in the U.S.;
- although he has expressed outrage, Obama has done little to disrupt the state-sponsored killing of unarmed black men by police officers, such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott;
- with regard to the drug war, Obama has made some progress on addressing the racial disparities in drug sentencing, and recently, commuted the life sentences of 22 people convicted of drug offenses, but his contribution here has been minimal.
And then there is the attitudinal research.
In a poll from January, 2015 by Al Jazeera America and Monmouth University, researchers asked respondents about about “race relations” found just 15% say they’ve improved since Obama was elected, while nearly half say they believe that race relations in the United States have gotten worse since 2008.
And, a 2012 poll by the Associated Press found an increase in racist attitudes — or, I should say, an increased willingness to express racist attitudes — among people in the U.S. that they surveyed. This short video (3:40) from Al Jazeera discusses the findings:
Perhaps the point that Rebecca made is the relevant one here: that HRC and Obama are cut from the same cloth and we can expect about the same progress on racial justice under her that we’ve had under him, which is to say, not much. The larger point is that politicians will follow where the people lead and it’s up to us to lead with our activism and holding them accountable.