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:

  1. 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.
  2. The de-facto criminalization of undocumented migration, which is designed to marginalize non-whites on a massive scale.
  3. 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.


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Written by fabiorojas

February 6, 2014 at 12:21 am

18 Responses

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  1. Fabio:

    I think you are making the classic error of thinking that people who disagree with you on political issues are irrational. You write, “if one had to choose, most rational people probably end mass incarceration before eliminating white privilege.” But mass incarceration has traditionally been very popular in the United States. Are you so sure that support for mass incarceration is so highly correlated with irrationality? Mass incarceration may well be an irrational policy (I think so; flogging would seem to be a more reasonable alternative), but that doesn’t mean that it’s supporters are not, in general, “rational people.” They are just coming at it from a different perspective than you are.

    This is not to disagree with the main points of your post; I just think we all have to be careful when thinking about the attitudes of people with whom we disagree on political issues.


    Andrew Gelman

    February 6, 2014 at 10:12 am

  2. Likewise, I don’t think that believing Obama hasn’t done enough on Race is a “hard left” position. I’m pretty sure its more widespread than that. The hard left position–which also holds some truth–would be that Obama has in many cases contributed to racial inequality.


    soft scientist

    February 6, 2014 at 4:39 pm

  3. Professor Gelman,

    I thought it was implicit that Fabio meant ending mass incarceration was rational from the perspective of somebody who prioritizes reducing racial inequality. (I mean, it could be from the perspective of somebody who has invested heavily in a large inventory of “NO RADIO IN CAR” stickers, but there’s no indication of that in the post).


    gabriel rossman

    February 6, 2014 at 5:55 pm

  4. Has anyone estimated the positive impact on college completion rates if federally-subsidized student loans are forgiven?


    Jenn Lena

    February 6, 2014 at 6:40 pm

  5. Andrew: The post is written from the perspective not of the median voter – who loves mass incarceration. Rather, it’s clear it’s written from the perspective of reducing racial inequality. And remember, you aren’t allowed to question my utility function!

    But even then, on the margin, it’s not clear that Obama is gaining a whole lot of extra votes by deporting people. Or on drugs, I wonder why he doesn’t simply demur and equivocate, like he did on gay marriage. In other words, if the median voter won’t let him do much, and being more pro-prison/pro-deportation doesn’t win you extra votes, then why make things worse?

    As I said, Meh.



    February 6, 2014 at 6:53 pm

  6. Lumping Whites and Asians into this “unfavorable” category does not correctly depict the undercurrents of racial differences/inequality. Asians have never been non-discriminatorily admitted to the US. In fact, the immigration policy has been very selective about what kind of Asians are welcomed here, which in large part leads to the seemingly obvious Asian advantage in the US. In addition, this idolization of Asians (model and seemingly problem-free minority) in academics and SES has long served to divide and conquer. Please be careful reading and citing literature on race research, especially those on Asian Americans.



    February 6, 2014 at 7:39 pm

  7. No one claimed that Asians have been spared from repression and discrimination. Rather, from a statistical perspective, there is a large gap in their lives and other minorities, which is due mainly to college completion. There is nothing disengenous in pointing that out.



    February 6, 2014 at 7:56 pm

  8. I think it is limitation of democratic party(not progressive party) to do much reform about sensitive issues.
    They have to care more about people who stand in middle and attract them to vote for them.
    So, I think we should not expect Obama(or political party) to do much on such issues, rather grassroots movement might be better.



    February 7, 2014 at 1:43 am

  9. Good post; nice way of slicing up what matters and what can be done. But in the background of your 3 issues, isn’t economic inequality a bigger piece of the race inequality story than anything else? From that point of view, most things Obama does that address economic inequality will have some impact on racial inequality. For example, restoring pre-Bush tax rates on the wealthiest 2% of Americans, and using that money to fund programs mainly targeted at helping 98%ers, will almost certainly reduce racial disparities from what they’d otherwise be.

    Agreed about the CJS; strange that Obama’s seemed so unconcerned with it, at a time when it’s been so much in the news and even people like Newt Gingrich have been calling for reform.



    February 7, 2014 at 5:18 pm

  10. Why should contributions to [diminishing] any inequalities be considered a function of an elected leaders’ race, ethnicity, or gender? Doesn’t the proposition continue to perpetuate the stereotype?



    February 9, 2014 at 5:17 pm

  11. Dan — where has anyone implied that because Obama is black, he should have done more to alleviate racial inequality? I hoped that Obama would do more, or at least try to do more, because he’s a Democrat. That’s how I read Fabio’s post, too.

    I can’t say that I’m surprised that Obama’s record is “meh.” First, Obama’s a centrist, and always has been. Second, he has to be especially cautious of what he says and what issues he prioritizes, lest he come off as Angry Black Man and lose the support of what remains of the political middle. Third, it was entirely predictable that the election of a black president, especially during hard economic times for the middle and working classes, would breathe new life into the racist and xenophobic elements of the far right.



    February 9, 2014 at 6:26 pm

  12. And the election of a black president, especially during hard times for the middle and working classes, would breathe new life into the aspirations for equality by sociologists and the far left.



    February 10, 2014 at 1:43 am

  13. John, it is true that Asians (like all ethnic groups including Whites) have experienced and continue to experience discrimination in some domains. However, that doesn’t falsify the fact that the model minority stereotype has a great deal of accuracy. You might find Sakamoto’s ‘The Myth of the Model Minority Myth’ (2012) to be a worthwhile explanation of why sociologists have generally neglected the accuracy issue in this case.

    The ‘divide and conquer’ issue is an argument from consequences, which doesn’t address whether something is factually true.


    Chris M

    February 10, 2014 at 2:31 pm

  14. @Chris, I am not at issues with Fabio tossing out some “fact.” But a lot of times, citing a statistic without context can be quite misleading a lot of times. I am not sure what you mean by stating that “the model minority stereotype has a great deal of accuracy.” You can replace Asians with other racial/ethnic groups and their associated statistics without much explanation, and then see how people would respond. I believe that many Asian American Studies scholars would disagree with that. Stating Asians as this model minority with its many implications can be offensive to many Asians, especially the native-born and the more acculturated.



    February 11, 2014 at 12:00 pm

  15. @Chris,

    By the way, you may find the following piece an interesting read:

    The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism by Chou and Feagin



    February 11, 2014 at 12:22 pm

  16. @Chris,

    The connotation hidden in the third point of “the biggest drivers of racial inequality are….” is quite clear, if you link it back to other texts in the post. Also the statement that “Rather, from a statistical perspective, there is a large gap in their lives and other minorities, which is due mainly to college completion” is quite misleading without any reference to a long chain of causation. There is a clear difference between some breezy “by-the-way” footnote about the discrimination against Asian Americans and some serious and careful analysis. My point here is that when you start to talk serious, it’s better to talk about things that you feel comfortable and expert at. Don’t fall back to the excuse that “well, this is a bleg, and don’t take it too seriously,” or “I am glad that people pay attention at least.” Ooops, I am kidding :) Don’t take my post too seriously. It’s just another bleg post after all.



    February 11, 2014 at 12:53 pm

  17. I start to dislike my own posts above. There is a bit of over-reading and over-reaction on my side. My apology. Sincerely. Bleg is a bleg.



    February 11, 2014 at 1:10 pm

  18. The fact that something is offensive doesn’t mean that it’s factually untrue.


    Chris M

    February 12, 2014 at 4:20 am

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