Scholars mull Obama’s record on race issues

The conference was organized by the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University

Yawu Miller | 4/23/2014, 10:55 a.m. | Updated on 4/23/2014, 10:55 a.m.
Tufts University Professor Peniel Joseph (center) makes a point during a panel discussion at the Barack Obama and American Democracy conference. Joining Joseph in the discussion are (l-r) Tufts Professor, Lisa Lowe, Arizona State University Professor Matthew C. Whitaker, historian Diane McWhorter and Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson. Banner Photo

A funny thing happened to Professor Matthew Whitaker on his way to the Barack Obama and American Democracy Conference at Tufts University.

“I got a text message from my mother,” the Arizona State University Foundation Professor of History said. “She said don’t be too critical of Obama.”

The other conference participants nodded in agreement with Whitaker’s point: black people are uncomfortable with criticism of the nation’s first black president.

“This is true of white liberals too,” noted historian Diane McWhorter.

The conference, organized by the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts, drew academics from across the country to discuss politics, the criminal justice system and other issues that have occupied the national spotlight during the five years of the Obama administration.

The question that dominated the opening session in the conference last week was how best to evaluate the Obama administration.

“How can black intellectuals criticize the administration’s policies while according respect to the president and his office?” questioned Tufts Professor Peniel Joseph, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, and convener of the conference. “Black America sees him as a surrogate son who they want to defend against white hate.”

Support for Obama cleaved along race lines in the 2012 election, with overwhelming majorities of black and Latino voters supporting him, and the majority of white voters — 59 percent — voting for Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

For many political pundits — black and white — the administration has been a disappointment with few palpable victories.

In the current atmosphere of extreme partisan gridlock, it’s not surprising that the Obama administration has been unable to advance an agenda, with the notable exception of the Affordable Care Act.

Georgetown University professor of Psychology Michael Eric Dyson cautioned against underestimating the importance of the Affordable Care Act, the first substantial legislation to reform the nation’s health care system in decades.

“When you see the questioning of his humanity and his citizenship, the fact that he got the Affordable Care Act passed is a miracle,” Dyson said. “What he was able to achieve was remarkable. To underestimate the lethal gravity of the people who are opposing him is a mistake.”

But aside from the new health care law, participants in the conference agreed there was little in the way of concrete accomplishments for which the Obama administration can take credit.

At the same time, the Obama administration has been unwilling or unable to take decisive action on, or to weigh in on race issues that have occupied the national spotlight in the last five years — the unprecedented rate of deportation of undocumented immigrants, the erosion of voting rights for blacks and Latinos, the disproportionate targeting of African American families by unscrupulous lenders and the rapid expansion of the prison industrial complex.

Given the declining fortunes of blacks during the Obama years, it’s surprising that there are so few prominent black critics of the Obama administration, Joseph noted. Black businesses have not prospered from government contracts in the last five years, he added. Just 1.7 percent of government contracts have gone to black-owned businesses.