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March 8, 2010

Obama, race, and democracy

I spent Friday and Saturday at an excellent conference on "Barack Obama and American Democracy." It was organized by Tufts historian Peniel Joseph and drew a diverse group of scholars and students, predominantly experts on African American history, politics, and culture. The discussion was rich and complex: this Twitter feed offers a feel for it.

The question for the final panel was simply: What does Barack Obama mean for American democracy? I said it was too early to tell, but I would break the assessment into three parts.

1. Obama as policymaker will strengthen democracy if he makes government work better and more equitably. Compared to some of the other speakers who explicitly addressed his policymaking, I was more supportive. I think passing a health bill like the one now before Congress would be quite a remarkable achievement, relative to my expectations about what is possible.

2. Obama as political reformer would help fix some of the grievous structural and procedural problems with our democracy, such as campaign finance abuses and the indefensible misuse of the filibuster. Such issues did not figure much in the 2008 campaign, presumably because they were not popular causes then. Thus Obama has no mandate for procedural reforms. Besides, the executive branch has relatively little leverage over these matters (as compared to its leverage in appropriations and foreign policy). Yet demand for deep procedural reform could build in response to the deepening crisis of our institutions, in which case the Obama years may be an era of reform, even if that doesn't originate in the White House.

3. "Democracy" also means the whole repertoire of civic and political acts undertaken by citizens. In many Americans' minds, that repertoire has shrunk to occasional voting and noncontroversial service, and wealthier Americans dominate even those acts. Barack Obama understands the full range of civic action better than any occupant of the Oval Office: he has a record of practicing, teaching, and studying robust and innovative forms of citizenship. His campaign was notable for its creativity in promoting active citizenship. His administration so far has not advanced that cause, but it will be difficult to do so from the White House and I am happy to give the Obama team some time to find its way.

Finally, strengthening democracy means tackling the specific crises facing the African American community. After this weekend's conference, I am more sensitive to the dilemmas of Black politics under the administration of the First Black President. African Americans in general are extremely supportive of Barack Obama and want to minimize criticism of him. That means that many are leery of directly advocating issues that disproportionately affect African Americans, lest they put the president in the position of having to pick between Black opinion and White opinion. Yet all other constituencies and interest groups feel free to make explicit demands.

Take health reform, for example. The best estimate (albeit with various caveats) finds that a lack of insurance causes 45,000 deaths in the United States each year. Twenty-five percent of adult African Americans lack health insurance, as compared to 15% of whites (source). Thus, in a sense, health reform is an "African American issue." A moderately disproportionate share of the lives saved will be Black people's lives.

On the other hand, if any individual or group seriously assessed the highest priorities for African Americans, I don't think health insurance reform would make the top three. Sentencing reform, educational equity, and youth unemployment would top my list. But all of these issues are more divisive and more difficult for a Democratic president to address than health care is. If the president were White, African Americans and others concerned with Black issues would be pressing for reforms on those fronts. With Barack Obama in the White House, the pressure is muted, and that's a problem.

March 8, 2010 8:22 AM | category: Barack Obama | Comments



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