RTF: I don’t share the outrage that some have expressed; I don’t think Obama was scolding the CBC as much as trying to inspire them. Of course he was also pressing them to take some responsibility for getting things done, too. He can’t pass legislation himself; that’s Congress’ job. But the speech didn’t strike me as especially controversial.
TR: Do you believe that Obama has made marked strides toward a “postracial” America?
RTF: I think the idea of a postracial America is unrealistic. To be sure, race relations are improving, but Obama’s election is a symptom of those changes — not a cause. And if the idea of “postracial” is that race would no longer mark a salient social division in American society, I think that is generations away, even given the most optimistic assumptions.
TR: In what areas of public policy, if any, do you believe Obama has most neglected the concerns of black Americans?
RTF: I think we need real innovation in civil rights thinking, and the president could take the lead in moving us toward an approach to confronting the subtler, deep-seated, systemic injustices that are now the most severe civil rights problems in the United States: problems like the high rates of incarceration among black men, neighborhood and school segregation, the wage gap in employment for women. These problems are not responding to typical civil rights litigation and activism because they are not caused primarily by discrimination.
Tomorrow: Imani Perry of Princeton grades the president.
Alexander Heffner, a freelance journalist based in New York and Boston, has written for the Washington Post, Boston Globe and USA Today.