The black president some worried about has arrived
The black president some worried about has arrived
There’s this thing people sometimes say down South.
So-and-so is “acting brand new.” Sometimes that’s a reference to someone behaving like they don’t know old friends and family — that they have evolved past their old crowd. Sometimes that’s Southern speak for the emboldened, someone behaving like they either don’t know the rules or have outright decided to disregard them.
In the past four weeks, we’ve seen President Obama take up residence in a place that sits somewhere in-between.
He’s spoken off the cuff about race relations on a widely circulated podcast (even using the n-word) and then eloquently followed that with what can only be described as a sermon on race relations in America before breaking into song. He’s challenged America to go deeper in its support of equality than retiring symbols of slavery (like the Confederate flag) and impolitic words (like the n-word).
While eulogizing a slain minister and state lawmaker allegedly killed by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., he outlined a whole raft of ways in which discrimination remains and inequality continues to grow. And now he’s gone and announced two major reform packages — housing last week and criminal justice on Tuesday — in the span of two weeks that could, if ultimately implemented, be of particular benefit to people of color in the United States.
On Thursday, Obama addressed the 106th national convention of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest and largest civil-rights organization. It’s worth noting here that the NAACP was founded by a cross-racial group of civil-rights warriors ultimately responsible for some of the most sweeping legal reforms of the 20th century. But the NAACP isn’t as highly regarded these days as it once was. In the 1990s, the NAACP saw a sharp decline in membership and was itself focused on issues like retiring the n-word, before rebuilding its membership by expanding its activism to include things like anti-death penalty work and school-funding reform.
Still, in the eyes of some Americans, the NAACP is a partisan organization. Some on the right have even called it a “hate group.”
But Obama came to the NAACP convention and laid out a criminal-justice reform agenda that included everything from calls for a close and hard look at what sends people to jail, which crimes and which defendants get the longest sentences and the use of solitary confinement. That agenda, Obama said Thursday, also has to include resolving the massivedisparities in school quality and discipline that federal data tells us begin in pre-kindergarten classrooms.
Obama talked about the fact that some people in jail need to be there, at least for some period of time. And he didn’t lamblast law enforcement.
Still, this Obama didn’t do what he has so many times before. He didn’t lecture black America about its behavior while making only passing mention of some of the social and economic conditions that solid research — not just political ideology — tells us has at least help to foster inequality. He gave a full airing to his sense that there is a need for wholesale policy reforms. And he stayed completely clear of the politically expedient and at-times-outright-popular act of saying that young black men should do something about the way some wear their pants or how they speak.
This Obama did not demure from the fact that mass incarceration and sexual violation in prison that have become such accepted feature of life for some segments of America that they are now part of the American joke-making firmament. He mentioned both. And Obama put the price tag of mass incarceration, American-style, at more than $80 billion a year.
That’s tab that could be used to build better roads and bridges and schools, Obama said. Or it could cover the cost of universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year old in America or the cost of college tuition at every public college and university in the United States.
But lots of reporters who watch the White House for a living say the Obama administration was stung by the 2010 midterm elections and Democrats staggering defeat, despite years of what they saw as pragmatic compromise. So the administration went big with executive orders and administrative actions on the environment, immigration, trade and other issues. There have also been some defeats — in court and in the court of public opinion — but then, there have also been some legal and social victories in the past eight weeks.
And there have stunning moments — in Sanford, Fla., in New York, in Ferguson, Mo., in North Charleston, S.C., in Baltimore and in Charleston, S.C. — that have made the continued significance of race harder for the White House and larger swaths of America to ignore. Combine that with the waning months of Obama’s presidency, and the timing makes sense.
And there was something else that happened in that podcast with comedian Marc Maron. There was something Obama said long after that n-word exchange, that should not be ignored.
“I know what I am doing, and I’m fearless,” Obama said.