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The Arc of the Moral Universe Bends toward Justice — and Small Children

October 28, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

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By Marie Burns:

On the same day the New York Times editorial board published an enthusiastic endorsement of President Obama in his bid for re-election, the editors made a strange editorial choice – to publish as its lead op-ed piece an essay tailor-made to suppress the black vote. In a piece titled “The Price of a Black President,” Frederick Harris argues that “the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality.” Harris is a professor of political science at Columbia University, where he directs the Institute for Research in African-American Studies.

Harris' New York Times column isn't exactly news – which is another reason to question the decision to publish it. It is a synthesis – and a bit of a revision – of his book The Price of the Ticket, published in May of this year. History professor Patrick Sullivan, writing in the Washington Post in August, gave Harris' book a less-than-glowing review:

Harris gives little attention to the forces that produced an increasingly racialized political climate, such as the racial codification of welfare,busing, quotas, poverty and crime, developments that helped forge the new Republican majority that elevated Ronald Reagan to the presidency.... Strategists seeking to elect black candidates outside black-majority communities had to develop ways to neutralize white bias.... He offers a thin analysis of how Obama navigated potential racial minefields in the 2008 campaign.

On June 1, the Post published a long op-ed by Harris, a piece he adapted from his book. The headline: “Still Waiting for Our First Black President.” in which he argued that President Obama has not lived up to his campaign promises to fight racial injustice and address racial inequality. In response, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter wrote a column for the Huffington Post, “Frederick Harris Attack Not Grounded in Reality.” Nutter specifically and generally rebutted Harris's claims. Nutter wrote,

For example, Professor Harris claims that President Obama failed to reform the criminal justice system. But he omitted any mention of the Fair Sentencing Act signed into law by the President that reduces sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. He failed to mention that the Obama Administration settled the longstanding Pigford II litigation, fought laws aimed at restricting access to the ballot box, and investigated the Trayvon Martin shooting – just to name a few.

In today's New York Times, Harris implicitly makes a few corrections or adjustments to the thesis of his book and Post op-ed by admitting to some of what he now calls the “important but minor” points which Nutter, Sullivan and others raised about his earlier writings. To get around the failings of his original thesis, Harris has expanded the “guilty party” from Obama to include the entire Democratic party. He has replaced some of his earlier assertions with new and equally faulty examples of how Obama, his administration and Democrats in general have failed to help African-Americans. Underpinning his thesis now:

Democratic politics has … failed to arrest the growing chasm of income and wealth inequality; to improve prospects for social and economic mobility; to halt the re-segregation of public schools and narrow the black-white achievement gap; and to prevent the Supreme Court from eroding the last vestiges of affirmative action.... 28 percent of African-Americans, and 37 percent of black children, are poor (compared with 10 percent of whites and 13 percent of white children); 13 percent of blacks are unemployed (compared with 7 percent of whites); more than 900,000 black men are in prison; blacks experienced a sharper drop in income since 2007 than any other racial group; black household wealth, which had been disproportionately concentrated in housing, has hit its lowest level in decades; blacks accounted, in 2009, for 44 percent of new H.I.V. infections.

Really? Aren't black Americans poorer today because all Americans – except the very wealthy – are poorer today? And isn't the “growing chasm” mostly (though not entirely) the result of Reagan-Bush policies? Was it “Democratic politics” that put John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito on the Supreme Court?” As for blacks' alarming rate of contracting AIDS, Harris ignores Mayor Nutter's rebuttal to his earlier work: that President Obama “has aggressively fought to reduce the number of HIV infections, committed an additional $15 million for HIV clinics and $35 million for state AIDS-drug assistance programs, and set a goal that many once thought was impossible decades ago: an AIDS-free generation.”

Harris admits that “Mr. Obama cannot, of course, be blamed for any of these facts.” Then he goes on to blame President Obama anyway – because, um, “as president, Mr. Obama has had little to say on concerns specific to blacks.” Obama's black friends are at fault, too: “black elites parrot campaign talking points. They dutifully praise important but minor accomplishments.” He specifically calls out Melissa Harris-Perry, the political scientist and MSNBC host, for having “become all but an apologist for Mr. Obama.” He names several black political and community leaders, including Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis (D-Georgia), whom Harris complains “has not using his moral stature to criticize the president’s silence about the poor.”

It is fair to argue that President Obama, his administration and “Democrats politics” have done too little for middle-class and poor Americans in general. Specifically, sub-prime lenders targeted blacks and other minorities, selling them mortgages that cost minorities their homes or left them holding underwater mortgages. Earlier this month, as reported in Salon, “the American Civil Liberties Union Monday filed a class action lawsuit against investment bank Morgan Stanley alleging racial discrimination in subprime mortgage practices.” The Obama administration, led by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, did far too little to help homeowners and way to much to excuse and help the professional perps who caused the national home mortgage fiasco. It wasn't until just last week – right before the general election – that the federal government got around to filing a $1 billion civil suit against Bank of America – which purchased Countrywide Financial Corp. “at the height of the financial crisis” – alleging that Countrywide deceived Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac about the soundness of its mortgage loans.” Still, the feds have filed no criminal charges against major home mortgage fraudsters.

Harris writes nothing about this serious lapse which disproportionally hurt racial minorities. It is also fair to raise more narrow issues which Harris also ignores: notably, the administration's idiotic, shameful firing of Shirley Sherrod, a black federal employee whom a provocative right-wing Website falsely accused of racism. The White House, if not the President, approved Sherrod's precipitous and unwarranted forced “resignation.”

But it is worthwhile to make a short list of what Obama has done for minorities. Harris acknowledges that President Obama managed to get through some significant legislation: ObamaCare, the Dodd-Frank financial reform and the stimulus bill. But Harris calls these accomplishments “race-neutral.” That is not precisely true. If you accept Harris's claims that more blacks than whites are poor and jobless and that “black household income … has hit its lowest level in decades” – and I do – then you have to acknowledge that any program that especially helps the poor and lower-middle-class is not “race-neutral.” Such a program would help a larger percentage of black Americans than of white Americans.

The Affordable Care Act, for instance, which will provide subsidies to low-income families to make health insurance affordable to them, will benefit the lower-middle class more than it will benefit the rich and the upper-middle-class. Similarly, a good portion of the stimulus funding went to minorities either directly in the form of new infrastructure jobs or indirectly in the form of educational grants for school construction, expansion of broadband coverage to poorly-equipped school districts, early education and retention of teachers in underfunded communities. Expansion of the Pell Grant program cut subsidies to bankers and provided more and bigger loans for lower-income students. The administration also cracked down on for-profit colleges that bilk a disproportionate number of minority students. The Obama administration made an effort to see that Small Business Administration loans went to minorities, women and veterans. Savings the auto industry saved a disproportionate number of jobs held by minorities. The Obama administration repeatedly pushed through Congress extensions of unemployment insurance. The administration expanded a nursing program that provides home visits to low-income expectant mothers. Democrats and the administration expanded the S-CHIP program to provide health insurance for more children of low-income parents. The administration and Democratic Congress also increased the food stamp program – SNAP – by billions of dollars. Most of the consumer protections put in place by “Democratic politics” and the Obama administration– like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the CARD Act – are of particular help to members of the minority groups whom shady financial institutions target.

So was President Obama standing at his bully pulpit proclaiming he was doing all these things for black people? Well, no. Harris acknowledges, then dismisses, those who raise the historical, social and political realities that render suicidal any politician's direct appeals for racial fairness. Harris seems downright naive about how the game is played. If the right wing has code words for racism, the left has countered with surreptitious acts that disproportionately help the victims of racism. This assistance is real: it isn't soaring rhetoric, but it fattens the wallets of black Americans.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Obama administration's efforts to improve conditions for active-duty military and veterans. While Mitt Romney was floating the idea of privatizing veterans' benefits, President Obama was adding to the Veterans Administration's budget, improving job opportunities for returning servicemembers, increasing funding for military personnel and veterans' medical care, buying better body armor for soldiers, cutting their tours of duty in war zones and cutting taxes for military families. While minorities are underrepresented among the military brass, black Americans are overrepresented among the rank-and-file. Improving conditions and opportunities for the military is a brilliant way for Democrats to assist minorities because Republicans have a hard time faulting policies that support the military (though they do, in secret).

When Michelle Obama and Jill Biden decided to make soldiers and veterans their “cause,” it was clear they had hit on another way to raise not just the profiles of our soldiers and veterans but also the opportunities for them. Many liberals find Obama's and Dr. Biden's efforts war-mongering-creepy, but these liberals just haven't figured out the hook: helping the military is helping minorities. The same goes for the First Lady's healthy-foods efforts. When she talked Wal-Mart and other grocers into locating stores in urban “food deserts,” what ethnic groups do you think benefit most? Bringing oases to these food deserts is a real quality-of-life improvement, especially for urban families who often do not have cars. When Michelle Obama works to improve school lunch programs, it is poor kids – who may get their most balanced and abundant meals at school – who reap the greatest reward. Stories of kids dumping their Obama-approved healthy school lunches usually feature photos of suburban white kids. Hungry kids eat broccoli. And when Michelle Obama said recently at a Congressional Black Caucus dinner that voting rights were “the movement of our era,” the usual suspects mostly kept their mouths shut rather than criticize the most popular woman in the U.S. (The Obama campaign and the Obama Justice Department have successfully challenged a number of Republican-written state laws aimed at suppressing African-American votes. These suits, of course, are also self-serving.)

Harris completely ignores the stealth work of the First Lady and Dr. Biden to improve the lot of black Americans and other minorities. Michelle Obama is her husband's very visible, very canny ambassador to black America. I suspect Harris just doesn't get that. Harris also dismisses President Obama's real accomplishments and his goal to give Americans of all colors a “fair shake.”

Harris does concede that the 95 percent of African-American voters who will likely vote for President Obama are making the right choice “given the symbolic exceptionalism of his presidency and the modern Republican Party’s utter disregard for economic justice, civil rights and the social safety net.” But this is a grudging concession, and Harris gives short shrift to the "symbolic exceptionalism" captured in the remarkable photo above. In his earlier writings, Harris has compared Obama unfavorably with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., without acknowledging that Obama, as a politician, and Dr. King, as a movement organizer, had different sets of tools with which to fight racial injustice. In his New York Times essay, Harris has muted this criticism by attributing it to another scholar, Tommie Shelby, who wrote, as Harris reports, “Judged alongside King’s transformative vision of racial equality and integration, Obama’s philosophy is morally deficient and uninspiring.” Yep, nothing less inspiring than kids with full stomachs and access to health care. Shelby, and by implication Harris, reduce these accomplishments to products of Obama's “pragmatic strategy.” But full stomachs and access to medical care are exactly the kinds of “pragmatic” outcomes that Dr. King lived and died for.

Harris calls the “ideal” of colorblind politics “a myth.” Yet, late in his life, this was precisely the tack Dr. King himself took: he demanded economic justice for all and celebrated the “determination by poor people of all colors” to win their human rights. Frederick Harris criticizes Barack Obama for not being enough like Martin Luther King when in fact the two leaders shared common goals and took equally impressive strides toward fulfilling those goals.

One step the Obama administration took to benefit all Americans was to fund a new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, scheduled to open in 2015. Harris should be standing at the door on opening day, waiting to get in. Once inside, he might learn something.

Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com

Note: for more on the photo above, by White House photographer Pete Souza, see this report by Jackie Calmes of the New York Times.

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