obama and race: a sober assessment
When people discuss Obama’s contribution to racial inequality, people quickly sort into a few camps. In the middle, and among Democratic partisans, Obama has done well. He believes in affirmative action and avoids race baiting. On the hard left, he’s slammed for not taking a more direct approach. They suggest that Obama either openly discuss the legacy of slavery and consider more redistribution. On the right … well, let’s just say that they can’t quite accept the fact Obama isn’t an atheist Muslim who hates America. I think these views all miss something important about race and the US presidency. They all say: What do I wish the president could magically do? Instead, you have to start by asking: What are the biggest racial issues in America? Which of these can the president actually solve?
In my view, the biggest drivers of racial inequality are:
- The mass incarceration of Blacks for non-violent drug related offenses. This is hugely important because prison massively disrupts the economic and social lives of people in nearly irreversible ways.
- The de-facto criminalization of undocumented migration, which is designed to marginalize non-whites on a massive scale.
- The college completion gap between Whites and Asians, and everyone else. This hugely important because college completion is the crucial difference between having a middle class life style and not getting one.
Notice that I didn’t say white privilege or white distrust/hatred of other groups. I certainly believe they are important, but honestly, if one had to choose, most rational people probably end mass incarceration before eliminating white privilege.
Let’s talk about Obama specifically. What can he do about #1? No president can magically undo a maze of Federal and state drug law, or single handedly reform the nation’s prosecutors. However, he could do some fairly simple things like simply remain silent on drug issues or down play excessive drug enforcement. I’ve little evidence that the Obama is especially interested in reforming drug laws and the President has scoffed, in the past, at drug legalization. On #2, Obama’s record ranges from marginal improvement (like promoting the DREAM act) to atrocious (overseeing mass deportation). On #3, there is little that the President can do directly to affect education. The power to improve schools lies mainly in the hands of the states and local school boards. My summary judgment on Obama is that he has done little to directly affect mass incarceration of Blacks and what positive he is doing immigration is outweighed by doing nothing to prevent (or actively encourage?) deportation. On schooling, I’ll give a pass.