As the historic presidency of Barack Obama came to an end, analysts and scholars are beginning the difficult assignment of assessing the impact of America’s first African-American President. The Harvard Kennedy School convened practitioners, analysts, and activists a few weeks ago for a two-day symposium to look at President Obama’s legacy on issues of justice race and civil rights. Panelists said Obama’s approach and leadership on issues such as policing and racism would be viewed positively for many generations to come. This includes getting parties to the negotiating table while quelling the emotional tinderbox of protests and counter-protests in his hard push for a meaningful criminal justice especially on the issues of mass incarceration.
Obama and Reagan
Avik Roy, the president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity and Opinion editor for the Forbes Magazine said that he thinks that President Obama will go down as one of the most productive presidents, regarding legislation that we’ve had in a long time. Roy was also the advisor to Senator Marco Rubio, Governors Mitt Romney, and Rick Perry. He added that Obama’s goal was to be the liberal Reagan and he thinks in many ways, he was. Roy made these remarks citing the 2009 federal stimulus bill, Dodd-Frank and the controversial Affordable Care Act.
President Obama got important legislation passed despite longstanding and very stiff obstruction from Republicans in Congress even when their interests and the White House’s aligned. The aggressive pursuit of consent decrees by the DOJ’s civil rights division and the comprehensive analyses of police departments in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore have been meaningful in the jump-starting reform of police practices. Obama went beyond the symbolism of having an African American in the White House and had a reverberating impact on policy and social movements.
Representation of Black Arts and Cultures
Brittany Packnett, an activist, acknowledged Obama for his frequent public celebration of African American arts and culture. Packnett noted that during the Obama Administration, the black cultural renaissance that has flowered amid the Black Lives Matter movement. That kind of representation matters as it offers a real legitimacy in the American canon. Packnett added that Obama’s image meant that black arts and cultures were not just the stuff of African Americans, but a recognition that our art forms are American treasures. As to the critics who say that the Obama administration has done a lot more talking than delivering results on racism and reform of the police and criminal justice systems, analysts said he’d accomplished more than people give him credit for.
“That kind of black representation matters,” she said, because it “offers a real legitimacy in the American canon. That it’s not just the ‘stuff of black people,’ [but a recognition that] our art forms are American treasures.”
Despite all of the racial animus and political resistance against him, Obama has been criticized for being “a respectability president” who hasn’t been aggressive or progressive enough on issues such as education, poverty, and immigration, said Rigueur.
Roy said Obama handled such treatment with remarkable “grace,” but said there are valid criticisms of his policies, such as stagnant wages and growth and a sluggish recovery that’s done little for those at the bottom, that don’t involve racism.
“There’s always an expectation of grace, of dignity, of a certain magnanimity that says ‘I know you wronged me, but I will not stoop as low as you have,’” said Packnett, co-founder of Campaign Zero and vice president of Teach For America’s National Community Alliances, on the expectation that black people in power won’t react to blatant disrespect. “That is a no-win situation when you’re a black man in the White House, because you’re either going to be too docile or too angry. And being human … is something I do not think is something [that] has been afforded to him over the last eight years, both because of his position and because of his race and because of his gender.”
Monteiro said Obama made it clear to those working in the administration that there was no one way to be black. “I reject the respectability [argument] because I think he has done it his way, but he’s allowed space for people to do it their way.”
As to criticism that the Obama administration has done a lot more talking than delivering results on racism and reform of the police and criminal justice systems, analysts said he’s accomplished more than people give him credit for.
“There are lots of things I think still need to be done,” said Packnett. Still, she said, by talking about these issues repeatedly, forming a policing task force in 2015, and convening meetings between activists, police, legislators and others to look for common ground and begin changing how police and black communities interact, “there’s a way in which he and this White House have brought this conversation into people’s living rooms that may not have happened otherwise.” Obama’s July visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma, for example — the first such by a sitting president — “humanized” the prisoners and brought the issue of mass incarceration to life.
Obama has brought new, previously marginalized voices into the public square and validated the need to address their problems, said Monteiro. “I think he’s made the most of his moment.”