Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Will Minority Interests Get More Attention In A Minority President's Administration?

As the first minority president, how will Barack Obama handle minority issues? To answer this question we will first examine what the president's abilities are as president, what previous presidents have done to represent minority interests and finally what Obama will do to represent these interests.

The president of the United States implements the laws that Congress passes and the Supreme Court interprets. To implement laws, presidents issue executive orders and appoint Cabinet members whose offices oversee departmental regulations. And although the executive branch doesn't make the laws, it can also strongly influence policy through setting the agenda. Past presidents have used each of these powers individually to represent specific minority interests during their administration. Whether it was FDR’s executive order to forcibly remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast during World War II; or Truman’s executive order to integrate the Armed Forces; or George W. Bush’s appointment of the most diverse Cabinet in American history, American presidents have the power to make decisions of exceptional consequence for minorities.

Because minority voters are disproportionately Democratic, many would assume that Democratic presidents would be especially sensitive to their policy interests. After all, it makes sense that these presidents might want to keep these voters in the fold for the next election. Unfortunately, history shows that American presidents have not always honored the support of minority voters. Blacks were a key constituency in Jimmy Carter’s 1976 win. However, Carter offered minimal support for the Congressional Black Caucus’ signature policy initiative of the 1970’s: the Humphrey-Hawkins Act. This act was supposed to guarantee full employment. In part because Carter did not lobby for the act and in part because of the amendment process, by the time the bill passed in 1978, it was completely toothless. Many contend that as a result of Carter’s lack of advocacy on behalf of blacks, black turnout in 1980 waned, contributing to Ronald Reagan’s decisive victory that year.

Because President-elect Barack Obama owes so much of his victory to the high turnout among minority voters, it is essential for his administration to deal with issues of concern to these groups. As Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza says, "we can't say that the Latino vote decided the victory, but if it's added to the African-American vote they determined the destiny of the country. This support represents a commitment by Obama to Hispanic voters to address the issues that are important to this community: first, the economy and second, immigration reform." So, it can be argued that Obama owes it to minority groups to work on minority specific concerns. If he fails to represent Latinos, Blacks and Asian Americans, he risks losing their support and potentially their vote for re-election.

In the past Obama has given reason to believe that he will address minority issues during his administration. In November of 2007, Obama said that "when America gets a cold, black and brown America get pneumonia, and we've got pneumonia right now. … We're moving in that direction, and we've got to do something about it. We've got to strengthen our unions. We have to raise the minimum wage and make sure it's not every 10 years, but it's keeping pace with inflation. It's got to be a livable wage." If Obama continues with this mindset, he will put minority interests such as poverty, unemployment, minimum wage, immigration, health care and violence on his agenda.

Since being elected, Obama has already shown some evidence that minorities will be represented. He has already appointed four Blacks and a Latino to his senior advisory positions. This includes Valerie Jarrett as a senior advisor, Eric Holder as Attorney General, Susan Rice as the UN ambassador, and Melody Barnes as Director of the Domestic Policy Counsel. He has also appointed the Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, as Commerce secretary.

The larger question, though, is not how many minorities fill key posts in his administration. Tokenism is not evidence of racial justice. Racial inequality is still a clear and present danger, and as long as a person’s race or ethnicity can help predict his/her income, educational attainment, life expectancy, likelihood of going to prison, etc., we haven’t completely overcome. No one is suggesting that President-Elect Obama ignore the economy or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or that those do not affect minorities. However, Obama, because he is a minority, is in an important symbolic position to be able to provide moral leadership on eradicating the vestiges of systemic racism. While no one can be sure as to whether Obama will represent minority interests or not during his administration, we can hope that the steps he has taken so far are evidence that minorities will not be given short shrift in his administration.

For Further Reading:

Lucius Barker, Mack Jones and Katherine Tate. 1998.African Americans and the US Political System. (Fourth Edition). Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall. Chapter 11.

Carlson, Laura. 2008. "Obama and the Minority Majority." Foreign Policy in Focus. 14 November 2008. Retrieved from 3 December 2008.

Greene, David. 2007. "Democrats Address Minority Issues, Each Other." NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. [Radio Transcript]. Aired 2 December 2007. Retrieved from 3 December 2008.

Paula McClain and Joseph Stewart. 2006. Can We All Get Along? (Fourth Edition). Boulder: Westview Press. Chapter 4.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Was The Election Of Obama Really The End Of Black Politics?

Although there is much speculation to this debate, the logical answer is no. The integration of the new generation of Black politicians into the political spectrum marks a progression in Black political leaders, not the obliteration of the Black political agenda.

Like all debates, there are multiple perspectives on the significance of the election of a young, deracialized candidate such as Barack Obama to the highest office in the land. On the one hand are those who hope that Obama’s election spells the end of racism. On the other hand, some fear that Obama’s election prematurely forces the end of the race discussion, and that black politicians like Obama privilege their ambitions over delivering substantive change to black communities.

In his provocative New York Times Magazine article this summer, Matt Bai was the latest to chart the rise of a new kind of black politician, young men (mostly men) who grew up after the Civil Rights Movement and whose approach to race politics differs dramatically from some of their elders. Instead of identifying themselves lock, stock and barrel with the protest politics of their elders, these new leaders espouse moderate politics and have tremendous appeal among white voters.

The rise of this cohort of politicians is not without controversy. These politicians attract support from constituents with diverse agendas. Also, some worry that these politicians will assume the role of race leadership only to squander their opportunities to address racial inequality. As such, scholars such as Adolph Reed Jr. label them “vacuous opportunists.”

Part of the reason these new black politicians engender so much controversy is that one cannot look at their personal backgrounds to detect racial fealty. For older black politicians, their participation in the Civil Rights Movement and personal experiences with discrimination was clear evidence to some that they were committed to improving the lives of blacks. However, when young black politicians emerge from sheltered upbringings and integrated environs, some are suspicious that they do not identify enough with the racial struggle to be effective advocates against racial inequality.

In all honesty, we do not yet know how Barack Obama will address racial issues in his administration. And it’s important to note that Barack Obama is only one black politician. We should not judge an entire cohort by one man, and we certainly should not judge him as president before he has taken office.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind. While Obama’s election does spell change, it does not spell the end of traditional black politics. Older civil rights leaders will still have a platform, and they will continue to advocate for the issues they have always championed. In fact, black politics works best when black politicians and black protest leaders are both active.

It will be many years before we really know the impact of Obama’s election on minority politics. The new era of Black leadership, like any new entity, raises many unanswered questions. Are these new leaders apathetic opportunists out for their own aggrandizement, or do simply understand the essential to winning elections in order to help them further the Black agenda? This question might remain unanswered for years. However, one thing is relatively certain: Black politics will not disintegrate anytime soon; the entrenched Black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement will make sure of this.

For Further Reading

Bai, Matt. 2008. “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” The New York Times Magazine. 6 August 2008.

Reed, Adoph. 2008. Obama No. The Progressive. May 2008.

Walters, Ronald. 2007. Freedom is Not Enough. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.