Little Known Executive Order on Diversity & Inclusion: Obama’s Pragmatic Progressivism

Executive Order 13583 issued by President Obama in 2011 is perhaps one of the least-discussed and little known executive orders, despite its significant contribution to diversity and inclusion in the federal government. Lyndon Johnson’s Executive Order 11246 issued in 1965 was undoubtedly the watershed presidential Executive Order in the field of Affirmative Action for federal contractors. Now, nearly a half century later, President Obama’s Executive Order 13583 breaks new ground by setting the stage for progress in the field of diversity and inclusion in governmental agencies.

This forward-looking Executive Order directs executive departments and agencies of the federal government “to develop and implement a more comprehensive, integrated, and strategic focus on diversity and inclusion as a key component of their human resource strategies.” The alliance of HR strategies with diversity and inclusion is specifically designed to create “high-performing organizations for the 21st century” — workplaces that attract, develop, and retain diverse and talented employees.

The government-wide Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan issued following the Executive Order in 2011 articulates the business imperative for inclusion and has three specific goals:

1. Workforce Diversity. Recruit from a diverse, qualified group of potential applicants to secure a high-performing workforce drawn from all segments of American society.
2. Workplace Inclusion. Cultivate a culture that encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness to enable individuals to contribute to their full potential and further retention.
3. Sustainability. Develop structures and strategies to equip leaders with the ability to manage diversity, be accountable, measure results, refine approaches on the basis of such data, and institutionalize a culture of inclusion.

And the Executive Order called for federal agencies to develop a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan within a 120-day time-frame that addresses recruiting, hiring, training, developing, promoting, and retaining a diverse workforce. Veronica Villalobos, the Office of Personnel Management’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion, is responsible for designing and developing strategies to promote a diverse federal workforce. As a model for organizations seeking to implement more diverse workplace practices, the governmental plan articulates clear strategies, actions, and accountability structures that promote the attainment of inclusion.

Obama’s Severe Limitations: The White-Racist Context

Atlantic magazine’s usually very sharp Ta-Nehisi Coates has a fine article this week laying out in some detail the limitations on blacks in politics, historically and today. And especially the major limits on what a black president can do in a racist society. For example,

The irony of President Barack Obama is best captured in his comments on the death of Trayvon Martin, and the ensuing fray. Obama has pitched his presidency as a monument to moderation. He peppers his speeches with nods to ideas originally held by conservatives. He routinely cites Ronald Reagan. He effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square. Despite his sloganeering for change and progress, Obama is a conservative revolutionary, and nowhere is his conservative character revealed more than in the very sphere where he holds singular gravity—race.

He adds the key point:

Part of that conservatism about race has been reflected in his reticence: for most of his term in office, Obama has declined to talk about the ways in which race complicates the American present and, in particular, his own presidency.

However President Obama occasionally transgresses his white-imposed boundaries, as when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Then President Obama ventured out of his restricted environment on racial matters and said something poignant, appropriate, and rather mild,

When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids, and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together—federal, state, and local—to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened … But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.

These rather accurate, normal, and mild comments got him a very large-scale attack from white conservatives, who made very clear that a black president did not have their permission to venture out even this far on U.S. racial matters. So, it is not surprising that Obama — who wished to be effective in policymaking and re-elected — has mostly not touched racial matters over the long years of his presidency.

Coates has this sharp interpretation of the negative reactions to Obama moving outside his racial-political “limits”:

The election of an African American to our highest political office was alleged to demonstrate a triumph of integration. But when President Obama addressed the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, he demonstrated integration’s great limitation—that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. And even then, full acceptance is still withheld. The larger effects of this withholding constrict Obama’s presidential potential in areas affected tangentially—or seemingly not at all—by race. Meanwhile, across the country, the community in which Obama is rooted sees this fraudulent equality, and quietly seethes. Obama’s first term has coincided with a strategy of massive resistance on the part of his Republican opposition in the House, and a record number of filibuster threats in the Senate. It would be nice if this were merely a reaction to Obama’s politics or his policies—if this resistance truly were, as it is generally described, merely one more sign of our growing “polarization” as a nation. But the greatest abiding challenge to Obama’s national political standing has always rested on the existential fact that if he had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin. As a candidate, Barack Obama understood this.

Twice as good, and half as black. That is, whites set the conditions under which limited racial “integration” can even take place, well into the 21st century. No post-racial US here.

Sadly, too, not even the usually on target and very sharp Coates is able to name, call out, and systematically analyze the white agents here, most especially the elite whites, as the principal actors creating the severely limited political and social environment in which Obama must daily operate. In this very perceptive quote, he does not once mention the white actors as such. He certainly implies them, and elsewhere in his sharp analysis a few Republicans are named for particular nasty racial incidents, but their individual and group racialized actions specifically as whites or white elites today are not named and assessed as such, or as part of our contemporary political and social system of white racial oppression.

Almost never in the media or scholarly writings do Elite whites, named as such and as the major white decisionmaking group, appear as contemporary actors in the subject position of key sentences that get at the particular contextual limitations that Obama faces, such as from the white elites (often operating out of a white racial frame) who control the mass media and elite political organizations — although they do periodically appear in other phrasing as the dominant group in society (as in this piece by Coates).

We have gone into more detail on these whites and our political system here.

Voters of Color and Obama’s Future

Journalism professor and New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall has a perceptive overview of some racial politics issues in the current presidential campaign. He notes the 16 groups Obama’s campaign is now focusing on:

People of Faith; Veterans and Military Families; Rural Americans; Seniors; and Small Business Owners.

And then the ones in his base are the rest:

African Americans, Environmentalists, Latinos, Young Americans, LGBT Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, Educators, Jewish Americans, Nurses and Women. … Obama is actively courting all of these constituencies: ending the deportation of many young workers who are in the United States illegally; endorsing same-sex marriage; loosening work requirements for welfare recipients; pressing Congress to keep student loan rates low; rejecting the proposal to build the … Keystone pipeline from Canada to Texas; and promoting health-care reform….

He notes then that the problematical group is white men without college, and notes that Obama is doing commercials to appeal to these white men, many of whom have faced difficult unemployment conditions. But this is where his support is so low in the polls; he is getting only 28-29 percent of these white men without college degrees right now—the lowest percent ever in the modern era for the Democratic Party. In contrast,

Romney and the Republican Party must achieve the highest possible turnout level among whites. Republicans, including Romney, have adopted anti-immigration stands that have extinguished the possibility of boosting margins among Hispanics. … Demographic trends — the steady decline of the share of the population made up of non-college whites, from 86 percent in 1940 to 48 percent in 2007 – have made winning these voters by increasingly large margins crucial to the Republican Party….

Meanwhile, Obama is still getting strong support from his base, which includes growing numbers of voters of color.

The political “wisdom” of Democratic officials, including the Senator Obama, in running the 2008 campaign from a colorblind version of the old white racial frame–that is, ignoring issues of racism–could be seen in the significant proportion of white voters, some 43 percent, who voted for Obama in 2008. Without this significant minority of white voters, Obama would not have become president. The political “wisdom” of course contradicts a deeper morality of social justice, equality, and liberty, but then this country is not a just, equal, and free country. Even our best and most progressive politicians operate in the societal straightjacket imposed by our plutocratic and systemically racist political and economic institutions.

So, not surprisingly, in the 2008 election McCain did win 12 percent more of the white vote than Obama. CNN exit polls for 2008 revealed very significant variation in who voted for Senators Obama and McCain. Overall, whites made up about 75 percent of voters, compared to 12 percent who were black voters, 9 percent who were Latino voters, and the rest who were from other racial groups (mainly Asian). Yet only 43 percent of white voters went for Senator Obama, including just 41 percent of male voters and 46 percent of female voters. These percentages are significantly lower right now.

Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the voting patterns revealed in 2008 exit polls concerned the fact that voters of color cast ballots in very large majorities for Senator Obama. Some 95 percent of black voters went for Obama, and so did 67 percent of Latino voters and 62 percent of Asian American voters. In addition, one evaluation of counties with numerous Native Americans in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado estimated that roughly 62 to 87 percent voted for Obama. Most of these voters were very aware of the pathbreaking character of having the first major party candidate of color running for the presidency, and their significant turnout for Obama was critical.

If the election had only been up to white voters in the pivotal states that Obama actually won –Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia—McCain would also have won these states, and thus the national election.

Voters of color were thus essential to Obama’s win in these states. Of course, the minority of white voters who did vote for Obama in these and other states were also important in the coalition that put him into office. Fortunately for Obama, a significant minority of whites did gravitate to the point of being willing, in the middle of a very severe economic recession, to vote for a black man, with many perhaps viewing him as an “exception to his race.

But will they do it again. In my view it is clear Obama’s chances again depend very heavily on voters of color.

Barack Obama and the Limits of the New Race Politics

During the 2008 presidential race, countless political observers argued that Obama’s ascent proved that the U.S. had become a “colorblind” nation. Voters did not “see” Obama’s color, we were told, they saw only Obama the man. But, as I found in doing research for my recent book this was hardly the case. Obama did not run a “raceless” campaign, he did not “transcend” race, and he was elected not in spite of his race, but in significant measure because of it.

In 2007/2008 the public sphere was literally saturated with “race talk” – as the pundits furiously debated the nature of Obama’s blackness, if he was “black enough,”, what kind of black man he was, if he would make whites feel guilty about racism, and just how great a nation the U.S. would be if we succeeded in electing a black man as president.

Obama was roundly praised for the degree to which he was not a “traditional” black public figure, like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other blacks with whom the wider white public had grown increasingly impatient. The candidate also won major points among his supporters for his willingness to repudiate the supposed lifestyles and choices of the black poor. Consider his repeated calls for “Cousin Ray Ray,” “Uncle Pookie,”and other mythical poor black men to “get up off the couch,” “pull up their pants,” and take “personal responsibility” for their own lives.

As a post-racial black candidate, —i.e. through his “magical” blackness, Obama could reconcile Americans of all colors and creeds, grant whites absolution for the racial sins of the past, and redeem the nation, by demonstrating the U.S. to be again a place of open opportunity and tolerance. Thus, we heard again and again, in 2007-2008, his ascent heralded the dawn of a “new politics race.”

But while Obama played the new politics of race to win, he certainly did not establish the rules of the game himself. In the few instances in which Obama has been seen as crossing over into “old” race politics– by speaking too openly about racism, or evidencing too much color consciousness– he has been rebuked by the mainstream media and the general public.

On the other hand, President Obama has also recently been strongly criticized by high-profile African Americans (most notably Tavis Smiley, Cornel West and Representative Maxine Waters for refusing to directly address the needs of the black community. Thus while the “new politics of race” elevated Obama to the White House in 2008, they may cause many black voters—whose overwhelming support was key to his victorysit out the race entirely in 2012.

Enid Logan
Associate Professor
Department of Sociology
University of Minnesota

Some Liberal Racism?

There is a very good discussion of “liberal racism” online right now. I was pointed to this debate by this “smartypants” site’s excellent discussion. It began recently with a commentary by Professor Melissa Harris-Perry at the Nation, where she suggests somewhat cautiously that significant aspects of the backtracking from support of and political attacks on President Barack Obama from liberal/left whites are often racialized:

Electoral racism cannot be reduced solely to its most egregious, explicit form. It has proved more enduring and baffling than these results can capture. The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism: the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts. If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.

She later accents Obama’s sharp decline in white support in opinion polls and certain contrasts with what happened politically to President Bill Clinton:

I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation. His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected. The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent. If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.

Her analysis of subtle racism is of course right on target, even too cautious, as almost all whites still view the society out of a strong white racial frame and do not even try to look seriously at it the way many people of color do. Not to mention the still high levels of blatant racist thought and activity documented in much social science research.

Then the liberal columnist Gene Lyons at Salon attacks Harris-Perry rather aggressively, from a liberal version of the white racial frame:

One Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane professor who moonlights on MSNBC political talk shows, wrote an article for the Nation titled “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” . . . . See, certain academics are prone to an odd fundamentalism of the subject of race. Because President Obama is black, under the stern gaze of professor Harris-Perry, nothing else about him matters. … not 9 percent unemployment, only blackness. Furthermore, unless you’re black, you can’t possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession increasingly resembles a photo negative of KKK racial thought. It’s useful for intimidating tenure committees staffed by Ph.D.s trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds.

So a white Arkansas columnist mocks a reasonable racial and political analysis by a savvy analyst and tosses issues of white racism out the window, comparing this black professor’s views to, of all things, the KKK. This actually demonstrates the privileged racist framing of too many white liberals. Indeed, “Smartypants” asks readers to post a call for an apology from Lyons for such wild assertions at the Salon site.

White liberalism often has had much trouble with the issue of marginalizing certain common black views and majority opinions, for white liberals also operate out of some version of the white racial frame most of the time.

Commentator Ishmael Reed raised related issues some time back. He suggested that much of Obama’s conformity in regard to tough political realities is necessary given that he is a black man operating in a fully white-controlled society. Reed criticized white and other progressives who have periodically asserted that “He’s weak, he’s spineless, he’s got no balls, primary him in 2012.” The prominent white progressive analyst, Glenn Greenwald, has regularly criticized Obama for being weak in dealing with Republicans:

Obama supposedly “doesn’t try, doesn’t use the weapons at his disposal: the ones he wields when he actually cares about something (such as the ones he uses to ensure ongoing war funding . . . . [This] leads to the rational conclusion that he is not actually committed to (or, worse, outright opposes) many of the outcomes which progressive pundits assume he desires.”

Indeed, Obama’s policy actions, especially on economic matters, have often suggested to many progressives that he is only a political moderate and not the liberal they expected.

Looking at these difficult political decisions, Ishmael Reed has emphasized that the white progressive critics miss certain key racial and other structural realities surrounding Obama. These white progressives

have been urging the president to ‘man up’ in the face of the Republicans. . . . What the progressives forget is that black intellectuals have been called ‘paranoid,’ ‘bitter,’ ‘rowdy,’ ‘angry,’ ‘bullies,’ and accused of tirades and diatribes for more than 100 years.

Therefore, if President Obama ever appeared too aggressive, say like Harry Truman did, he would be strongly dismissed by most whites as another “angry black man,” which is a very negative part of traditional white framing. Such widespread dismissals would make policy goals very difficult to achieve. Instead, President Obama’s rather “cool” approach to political action, as Adia Wingfield and I have argued, has involved being at all times and places calm and in control, never really being angry or threatening. Always conciliatory. The continuing white-racist contexts that prevail inside and outside U.S. politics make this a necessary strategy, as likely seen from Obama’s own perspective.

Racial Analyses in the Times: Deferring to Elite Whites?

It appears that racial issues are finally getting a little more attention in some parts of the mainstream media. José called my attention to these two recent and interesting New York Times articles. The first is a short book review by Brent Staples, a journalist who notes that

As Randall Kennedy reminds us in his provocative and richly insightful new book, “The Persistence of the Color Line” . . . the Obama forces disseminated several messages intended to soothe the racially freighted fears of the white electorate. On one channel, they reassured voters that he was not an alien, but a normal American patriot. They also made clear that he was a “safe,” conciliatory black man who would never raise his voice in anger . . . .

Then he ads that candidate Obama himself sent out certain messages:

On yet another wavelength, the candidate proffered his bona fides as a black man to ­African-Americans who were initially wary of his unusual upbringing . . . .

It is a bit odd that Staples does not even note other, probably much more critical, books on race, racism, and the Obama campaigns–such as the one that Adia Harvey Wingfield and I did not long ago. Had he done so, Staples could perhaps have made even more sense out of the data on the white-racialized dimensions of both the Obama campaigns and Obama’s presidency.

There is also another interesting article in the Times by Desmond King, American government professor at Oxford University and Rogers Smith, a political science professor at Penn, that discusses the failure of both political parties to openly discuss racial matters seriously, such as the extreme unemployment rates for African Americans:

The economic crisis in the United States is also a racial crisis. White Americans are hurting, but nonwhite Americans are hurting even more. Yet leaders in both political parties — for different reasons — continue to act as though race were anachronistic and irrelevant in a country where an African-American is the president.

They are quite correct on this point, and their brief data on racial inequalities is highly germane to their general argument, but I kept waiting for them to discuss why there is such systemic racial inequality and who the key white decisionmakers mostly are in this regard. Not only are whites (or the dominant white racial frame) not called out as agents of discrimination, but even more seriously the elite white men whose racial and class frames and actions have mostly created the party and societal neglect (and much actual reality) of racism at issue are not specifically called out or critically discussed as elite white male agents (more than just “leaders”) shaping these structures.

As in the Staples review (and perhaps in Randall Kennedy’s book?), this white male elite remains unnoted and unmarked as such, once again. Is it still too dangerous now in this society to call them out and analyze their critical and continuing role in racial discrimination and their dominant white racial framing that shapes both our politics and our society more generally?

“Skin Color” Thicker Than Water: Limbaugh Again

Rush Limbaugh, the father of the conservative noise machine, is at it again. He now claims he knows how former Secretary of State Colin Powell will vote during the 2012 elections–that he will vote for Obama.

But if Powell says he will not support Obama for re-election, he has good reasons. Powell, a moderate Republican, is known for supporting centrist causes, if these causes help the marginalized and voiceless. Limbaugh believes without a doubt that Powell will vote for Obama because “skin color” is thicker than water.

Limbaugh knows “skin color” is thicker than water, a historical fact we cannot dispute. Limbaugh knows this because “whiteness” bestows all the “opportunities, freedoms, and rewards that this nation offers white Americans.” Beyond this, Limbaugh is well aware that whites have looked out for each other since the founding of this country for the same reason he believes Powell will vote for Obama: “skin color.”

Of course, the only way Limbaugh could know Powell will certainly cast his vote for Obama is that Powell will have to change his mind and announce his support for Obama, for no voter can know with certainty what other voters will do when they enter the voting booth.

More Tea Party Racism

As if we needed it, the white Tea Party folks have made it clear again how some/many of their members think in blatantly racist terms — straight out of the old white racial frame. The Los Angeles Wave (h\t Trevor) has this story about more racist imagery from an Orange County Republican official targeting President Obama:

A tea party activist and elected member of the Orange County Republican central committee said she will not heed calls to resign because she emailed a picture of President Barack Obama’s face on the body of a chimpanzee. Marilyn Davenport of Fullerton recently emailed a picture of Obama’s face superimposed over a baby chimp’s face with the caption, “Now you know why — No birth certificate!”

One Republican official called on her to resign and said that it was “dripping with racism.” Like many whites, her defense was the usual:

“I am not a racist. It was a joke. I have friends who are black.”

When whites do blatantly racist stuff nowadays, since they control the dominant white racial framing, they get to decide what is racist and what is not. That is, when they do even racist stuff like this, they get to define racism as not racist! One has to wonder too why she thinks she really has “black friends,” with racist framing like this. This is an old set of white defenses.

A sincere apology and self-searching about where such imagery comes from and why one thinks it is funny, that would seem to be the best response, not such defensiveness.

Another serious aspect of this is that Republican officials, including Davenport, are quite concerned about who released the racist “joke” to the media. This seems to be a greater concern than its brutal simianizing racism and revelation about the deeper thinking of some conservative Republicans. Clearly, if such blatantly racist “joking” incidents and events are kept in the white backstage, they are not considered serious at all. It is when that sordid backstage becomes public that whites must acknowledge and back off.

Davenport also claimed that she did not even know it was racist.

In no way did I even consider the fact he’s half black when I sent out the email. … the thought never entered my mind until one or two other people tried to make this about race.

Lack of awareness that widespread racist imagery is racist is an odd defense. However, presumably, whites can operate out of the old racist framing consciously or unconsciously. One Republican Committee member defended her as only “a polite, gentle grandmother.” He also added it was only “light-hearted,” and indicated that the committee members often send such “fun” and “motivational” stuff back and forth. (And he seems to think that older whites cannot be polite grandmothers and also operate — consciously or not — out of a white racist framing of society.)

So, racist fun in the backstage is OK and in their minds does not show us how whites with political power and influence really think negatively about black Americans, such as that they are connected to simians–a white racial framing that has been around for at least 250 years.

Mocking President Obama: Fox Story on Gorilla Precipitates Much Racist Stereotyping

A few weeks back a blogger over at posted a note that

Today on the Fox Nation web site, they posted a story on the popularity of some new videos of a gorilla walking upright like a man.

Then the DailyKos blogger notes some of the comments in posts underneath the Fox story:

1preacher: Yea, I could see where this Gorilla evolved from obama’s family.

amveteran: This is a true knuckle dragger. Reminds me of Al Sharpton.

winterhawk: Just as I thought, that’s buckwheat’s daddy.

flyinjohn23: Not only that….He got himself one of those Hiawian Birth Certificates over the internet all on his own too.

1preacher: Because I said that this was obama’s mother, that is racist? Not following that one.

hawk1052: Shelia Jackson Lee, comes to mind.

armed: is the one in the background carrying a teleprompter and throwing tater tots at the other one.

And the Fox Nation site then noted that at least 13 comments were flagged for their content, which presumably meant they were even worse. One can still find these very old ape-imagery examples in discussions of President Obama many thousands of times across the Internet today–as a quick use of google search will demonstrate. This ape/animal imagery has been central to the old white racial frame now for centuries.

Majority of House’s Black Legislators Oppose Tax Cuts for Wealthy–and the Tax Bill

A nearly 60 percent majority of the black caucus in Congress voted against President Obama’s Republican-oriented, compromised tax bill, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn.

Their website put it this way:

“We are headed towards fiscal disaster.”
— Rep. Bobby Scott, 12.17.10

“Obamanomics is more like Reaganomics.”
— Rep. Jessee Jackson, Jr. 12.10.10

“This measure does not create a single job or stimulate the economy in any way.”
— House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, 12.16.10

24 members of the CBC voted against Pres. Obama’s tax deal with the Republicans. Many cited the huge price tag. The bill will cost 900 billion dollars. More than the Stimulus bill, more than TARP. Other members felt the President should have and could have secured a better deal with the other side and that the legislation sets the Democrats up to be confronted with massive spending cuts to social programs over the next two years.

Jim Clyburn’s full statement was thus:

While I am pleased that the tax package approved by the House tonight extends important tax cuts to middle-income families and unemployment insurance for millions of Americans, adding $25 billion to the deficit to give a major tax benefit to the estates of the richest 6,600 families in America made it impossible for me to vote for the final package. This measure does not create a single job or stimulate the economy in any way. I hope that as we move forward and our economy continues to recover, we will restore some fairness to the tax code and reduce the burden we are putting on future generations.

A very clear indication of the political independence of the representatives of Black America in Congress–and probably of whom President Obama’s and Congress’s tax compromise is skewed toward.