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A presidential perspective on race

Obama savors victories, makes case for racial justice

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A presidential perspective on race
President Barack Obama speaks with a group of young civil rights leaders in a recent meeting. The president has been more outspoken on racial issues this year than in the past. (Photo: White House photo by Pete Souza)

It was a remarkable week for President Obama: On Monday he commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders; on Tuesday he called for sweeping criminal justice reform in an address to the NAACP; and on Thursday he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.

His message was clear: The United States locks up too many people for too long; African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately stopped, arrested, charged and imprisoned; many communities are suffering as a result; and reform is vital. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it,” he said.

“It’s shocking and surprising to see this kind of vision coming from the White House,” said David Harris, managing director of Harvard’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. “I can’t imagine any other president having the breadth of knowledge that he displayed. … To the extent that other presidents have used crime as a code for race, this president actually named some of the racial disparities that impact our communities in ways that others haven’t.”

Bold on black

Obama’s candid remarks on the country’s broken criminal justice system are the latest example of the bolder stance on race the president has taken recently, particularly since last month’s killing of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

Two days after the shooting, Obama told comedian Marc Maron that the United States still is “not cured” of racism. “It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public,” he said. “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior.”

The following week, during his eulogy for the slain Charleston church pastor Clementa Pinckney, Obama spoke out against the Confederate flag. “Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers,” he said. “It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.” Later in his sermon-like eulogy, the president broke into the spiritual Amazing Grace.

With only a year and a half left in the White House, no more elections to win and growing national anger over violence against African Americans, Obama seems to be foregoing the cautiousness around race that marked his first six years in office.

More autonomy

Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African American Studies at Duke University, said that more than current events, it’s Obama’s new political reality that has allowed him to be so forthright. “There’s no question that the deaths in Charleston had a dramatic — if not traumatic — impact on the president that forced him to go some place he hadn’t gone before,” said Neal. “But also from a political standpoint, I imagine that at some point in the last six months — probably in the last six weeks — when the president woke up, he realized he wasn’t running for reelection again, that he wasn’t trying to keep the Senate or win the House anymore, and decided that he’s free.”

In addition, said Neal, a string of recent political victories on all fronts — the Supreme Court upholding healthcare reform and affirming gay marriage, the Iran nuclear deal and Loretta Lynch’s confirmation as attorney general — has given Obama a new confidence to speak out on a variety of issues.

Forging consensus

In the same way, Neal said that Obama’s new outspokenness on race and criminal justice reform fits into a certain presidential politics. The cause of criminal justice reform is “not only something that he believes in and is passionate about, but is also something that can be a win for him because there’s already on-the-ground bipartisan support” from the Koch brothers and Newt Gingrich to the ACLU.

Harvard’s Harris said that Obama’s latest comments on race, while bolder than the previous six years of his presidency, don’t necessarily represent new views. “He has a perspective on these issues that mirrors his time as a community organizer,” he said. “If you go back to his speech in Philadelphia before he was elected, and you look at his analysis of how we got to where we are, it’s a systemic analysis.”

Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, who has known Obama since he was a law student, agreed that the last month has been about the president finally showing his true self. “His sermon in South Carolina was right on time,” said Ogletree. “He was saying what he has believed all along. Now he can open up and be free. That’s what 2015 and 2016 is all about: The real Barack Obama. Before he leaves the White House in 2016, we are expecting him to say the things he’s been talking about before he was elected.”