As we count down to a second term, a look at his record on a much-debated tool for equality.
(The Root) -- Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: affirmative action. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: Since the end of government-sanctioned segregation, affirmative action has emerged as the last of the great legal battles in the war for racial equality in America. The origins of affirmative action as we know it today began in the 1960s. President John F. Kennedy first used the term "affirmative action" upon issuing Executive Order 10925, which created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, the precursor to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The order required that projects using federal funds take "affirmative action" to ensure that projects are free of racial bias in areas such as hiring.
During his tenure as assistant labor secretary in the Nixon administration, Arthur Fletcher, a prominent black conservative, outlined the first plan to use sanctions as incentives for employers to diversify their workforces. Fletcher, whose plan was first used among construction workers in Philadelphia, would become known as "the godfather of affirmative action."
In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in the country's first major court decision on affirmative action. The court determined that Alan Bakke, a white applicant who had been denied admission to the University of California at Davis Medical School and who claimed racial quotas favoring minorities had caused him to be passed over for less qualified candidates, deserved admission. Affirmative action was declared constitutional, but the court's ruling said that while race can be considered in admissions, it cannot be a determining factor via quotas of any kind.
In 2003 the Supreme Court heard two affirmative cases involving the University of Michigan. While the court struck down the university's use of affirmative action at the undergraduate level in Gratz v. Bollinger, deeming it as quota-based for employing a point system to applicants that included race as a consideration, the court upheld the university's limited use of a race as an admission consideration in its law school in Grutter v. Bolinger. (After the ruling Michigan voters would pass a ballot referendum to prohibit race and gender from being considerations in state college admissions, public hiring and the distribution of public contracts. Just after the 2012 election a federal appeals court overturned the ban.)
First-term accomplishments: President Obama has indicated that he believes affirmative action should begin to address class-based inequality even more more than it does racial imbalances. During the 2008 election he stated that he does not believe his daughters should benefit from race-based admissions, considering their privileged backgrounds. His administration did, however, file an amicus brief in support of the University of Texas' use of affirmative action in law school admissions for the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin lawsuit, an affirmative action case that will be heard by the Supreme Court in the coming year.
Second-term hopes: In a 2009 interview with the Associated Press, the president said, "I do think that there are still circumstances in which on a college admissions or on a hiring decision, taking into account issues of past discrimination, of diversity of a workforce or a student body, can still be appropriate." But in recent weeks he has come under fire for a lack of diversity in his own hiring.
There has been endless criticism of the number of white males recently appointed to his second-term Cabinet, and the New York Times recently noted the predominantly white, male composition of President Obama's senior staff. The president's own workplace reinforces the fundamental challenge that affirmative action faces today. While most Americans agree diversity is a worthy goal, most also agree that successfully achieving that goal is not always easy. But it is much tougher to accomplish without targeted remedies aimed at achieving it.
Many are hopeful that with the Fisher case set to refocus the nation's attention on the subject of affirmative action, the president will take more of a leadership role in demonstrating the importance of diversity in his own workplace and in articulating its importance to the American people -- particularly now that he is no longer facing a re-election campaign in which discussions of race must be carefully avoided as lethal political landmines.
As we count down to a second term, a look at his record on unemployment in our community.
(The Root) -- Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: black unemployment. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: The unemployment rate of black Americans has been an ongoing challenge for the black community, policymakers and presidents since the government began tracking unemployment data. The rate of unemployment among black men and women has been practically double the unemployment rate for white Americans since records started being kept on the subject in 1972.
But the numbers have been particularly dismal in recent years. In 2007, when the latest recession began, unemployment among black Americans was 7.9 percent, compared with 4.2 percent for white Americans. In the years that have followed, the unemployment rate for black Americans has risen faster than the rate for white Americans or Latinos.
First-term accomplishments: In January 2009, the month President Obama took office, the unemployment rate for black Americans was 12.7 percent, compared with 7.1 percent for whites. By August 2011, the government's own data confirmed that the unemployment rate for black Americans had reached its highest levels since 1984: 16.7 percent. It has since fallen but was still at 14 percent in December 2012.
In an interview with The Root, then-Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) had this to say about the rate of unemployment among black Americans during our first black president's first term: "Look, as the chair of the Black Caucus, I've got to tell you, we are always hesitant to criticize the president. With 14 percent [black] unemployment [pdf], if we had a white president, we'd be marching around the White House."
Second-term hopes: Finding a viable policy solution to address unemployment rates in the black community has stymied most presidents, but the issue is proving particularly vexing for the first black president. In part, this is likely because many black Americans have higher expectations for him on issues affecting the black community, and few issues are affecting the community as deeply as unemployment.
But many issues underlying the black unemployment crisis involve the political landmine of race, a landmine that has proved perilous for the president in addressing in the past. Now that the president has been safely re-elected, many are hoping that his administration will be less wary of potential landmines.
For instance, a Princeton study published in 2007 found that race still plays a prominent role in hiring decisions made by white small-business owners, to the detriment of black applicants. Yet revisiting the role of affirmative action in hiring has not been publicy explored at length by the Obama administration, despite its weighing in on an upcoming Supreme Court case involving affirmative action in higher education. (Read more on how Obama will tackle affirmative action on The Root tomorrow.)
However, the Obama administration introduced a groundbreaking program to provide tax breaks for businesses that hire veterans to help address staggering unemployment rates for men and women who have served in the military. Mayor Michael Nutter praised a similar program in Philadelphia for helping to increase employment for another underemployed population: former felons. Mayor Nutter called the program "one of the best crime-prevention programs we'll ever have," indicating that employment can lower recidivism rates among former prisoners.
So what does this have to do with black unemployment? According to the NAACP, "One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime." In the city of San Francisco, the unemployment rate of former felons was between 25 percent and 30 percent. For this reason, a local elected official there introduced a measure similar to the one championed by Nutter in Philadelphia: to provide tax breaks to businesses willing to hire someone who has been released from prison.
The fact that such measures have gained traction in major cities affirms that there are viable solutions. The question is whether or not the Obama administration is willing to take the risk of trying such out-of-the-box thinking. If it doesn't, it is possible that the first black president's administration may be forever remembered, not for hurting the plight of black Americans but, rather, for not doing much to help them economically.
Tell us what you would like to see President Obama do concerning the black job crisis during his second term, using the comment box below.
As we count down to a second term, a look at his approach to the achievement gap.
(The Root) -- Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: the educational achievement gap. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: Racial and economic disparities in education -- known as the "achievement gap" -- have been stubborn parts of the American landscape of social inequality since long before President Obama was elected to his first term, and they persist today. As reform advocate Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a blunt speech in September, "As a nation, we are still far from truly achieving equal educational opportunity. In America, in 2012, children of color not only confront an achievement gap; they confront an opportunity gap that, too often, is unacceptably wide ... Closing the opportunity gap will require that school resources, talent and spending be targeted to the kids who need help the most."
When it came to improving education generally and addressing the achievement gap specifically, the Obama administration was quick to pick up the charge and has focused on it consistently, even taking on the not-yet-mainstream issue of racial disparities in school discipline, Deborah Vagins, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Root.
Vagins says that the administration was "very receptive" to addressing what's known as the "school-to-prison pipeline" -- the idea that children are pushed out of public schools and into the criminal-justice system because of overreliance on racially discriminatory, punitive school discipline -- among other issues with consequences for educational equality.
First-term accomplishments: Those monitoring the education strategy in President Obama's first term saw a few general areas of focus: improving access to college, providing relief from the punitive aspects of the No Child Left Behind legislation (thereby giving states increased flexibility to improve their public school systems) and making improvements to early-childhood development.
Each of these efforts had potential for closing racial and economic disparities. For example, in March 2010 the Obama administration sent Congress a "Blueprint for Reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act" that addressed the "unintended consequences" of NCLB, such as lowered standards. It specifically outlined goals for "pursuing high standards and closing the achievement gap," and included a focus on "diverse learners" and "turning around low-performing schools." In addition, the president's signature $4.35 billion Race to the Top program specifically incentivized states to close their educational achievement gaps.
Less frequently discussed is the Department of Education's School Improvement Grants program, focused on improving low-performing schools. Education Department spokesman Daren Briscoe told The Root that two-thirds of the participating schools showed improvements in areas including reading, math, attendance and graduation rates. "We're not declaring victory, but we're helping to improve over 1,300 of the nation's lowest-performing schools," he said.
James Eichner, managing director of programs for civil rights organization the Advancement Project, praises the administration for "an emphasis in the Office for Civil Rights on college and career readiness, making sure [those who are] low income and of color are college- and career-ready."
But the biggest victory with respect to the achievement gap? According to Eichner, it's about the school-to-prison pipeline. "We've seen some good things out of both the Department of Education and the Justice Department through the Supportive School Discipline Initiative," he said. "I think this administration really gets that zero-tolerance policies and harsh discipline are really a problem."
On the same topic, Vagins praises the administration for reinstating the Civil Rights Data Collection's tracking of data on key educational civil rights issues in public schools. The CRDC was eliminated under the Bush administration but put back to work by the Obama administration, which has tasked it with tracking a more complete set of discipline-related measures.
Second-term hopes: During his campaign against Mitt Romney, President Obama reiterated a pledge to recruit and train 100,000 math and science teachers. However, he did not outline a detailed second-term agenda for education during the campaign, let alone a specific plan for closing the achievement gap or addressing the school discipline disparities that many argue contribute to it.
Still, a November Gallup poll showed that 68 percent of Americans believed that Obama would improve education in his second term, and 72 percent predicted that he would improve conditions for the poor and minorities.
"We hope this administration will be more focused on equity and closing the achievement gap instead of being a little too focused on some things, like high-stakes testing and [school] privatization," the Advancement Project's Eichner said.
He says he's optimistic, though, that the Department of Education's Equity and Excellence Commission will "make concrete policy recommendations, with a particular focus on school finance and how more equitable resources can be provided."
The ACLU is similarly hopeful that the DOE will address the school-to-prison pipeline by finalizing and issuing guidance to schools on the effect of punitive discipline policies, studying the impact of the disproportionate use of such approaches and "using its full range of resources to encourage the elimination of the use of restraint and seclusion in public schools," the ACLU's Vagins told The Root.
Tell us what you would like to see President Obama do concerning the educational achievement gap and the school-to-prison pipeline during his second term, using the comment box below.
As we count down the days to a second term, a look at the president's record on black colleges.
(The Root) -- Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: the war on drugs. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: Today 105 historically black colleges and universities educate 135,722 male and 238,685 female students across the United States, according to the most recent data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Historically, HBCUs have played a vital role in providing educational opportunities for traditionally underrepresented groups. Since the 1830s, they have been instrumental in preparing black people to make significant contributions to the economic, intellectual and cultural landscape of the nation.
Research demonstrates that HBCU graduates enjoy greater financial success in their careers, and U.S. rankings consistently show that HBCUs are among the top producers of students who continue their educations through graduate and professional schools. My own research (pdf) indicates that for black students, HBCUs are clearly superior to predominantly white institutions for promoting positive student-faculty relationships and students' sense of belonging among science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors.
Notwithstanding those benefits, many HBCUs have suffered financially because of declining enrollment, the economic recession and other fiscal challenges. Federal investment in HBCUs is critical for them to realize their respective missions; achieve long-term financial stability; and develop programs, policies and practices that promote recruitment, retention and graduation among the black students they so diligently serve.
First-term accomplishments: On Feb. 26, 2010, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to continue the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Later that year, in September, President Obama affirmed the role that HBCUs must play to help him achieve his goal of having the United States lead the world in percentage of college graduates by 2020. He also reiterated his commitment to HBCUs by announcing his plans to increase spending on HBCUs by $850 million over the next 10 years.
William Jawando of the White House Office of Public Engagement also noted that President Obama's 2011 budget called for an annual increase in spending on Pell Grants -- important because 50 percent of HBCU students qualify for Pell Grants. Other federal accomplishments that will benefit HBCUs include continuing support for TRIO programs that target disadvantaged students and an executive order establishing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
Second-term hopes: During President Obama's second term, it will take federal action for HBCUs to strengthen efforts to recruit, retain and graduate larger numbers of students. For recruitment, it will be essential for the White House Initiative on HBCUs to work closely with the new White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans in order to bolster efforts to prepare the 8,550,344 black children currently enrolled in kindergarten through the 12th grade in the U.S.
From a policy standpoint, the federal government needs to address the fiduciary responsibility of states to provide public secondary-educational options that meet the basic academic requirements of their institutions of higher education, including public HBCUs. Coordinated efforts between the two White House initiatives could also address the growing trend among guidance counselors at predominantly black high schools to advise qualified students to attend community colleges, neglecting HBCUs.
From a funding perspective, money allocated to HBCUs should be tied to deliverables that foster greater college persistence among black students. Specifically, through budget allocations to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, competitive awards should be expanded for HBCU faculty members who actively engage in research with students. Federal appropriations for programs targeting first-generation college students, such as the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, are also vital to administration objectives.
At a recent discussion sponsored by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, most HBCU presidents considered financial difficulties to be the primary barrier to student retention and graduation. One president discussed successful efforts to identify students of good academic standing -- who had been close to graduating -- who dropped out of college for financial reasons.
In some cases, offering students less than $500 toward the cost of tuition was enough to re-engage them in the academic process. This is another reason that long-term sustainability of the Pell Grant program is an important federal policy lever for higher education and a key source of support for low-income black students pursuing degrees at HBCUs.
Finally, federal support will be necessary to deal with long-standing administrative challenges at many HBCUs. Through the White House Initiative on HBCUs, the second Obama administration could work with HBCUs to modernize facilities, streamline administrative tasks and enrich student services. Easing tensions related to registration, student aid and student transfers could greatly improve recruitment and retention efforts among HBCUs.
All of these efforts will require not only resolve from the Obama administration but also forethought and innovation among HBCU leadership.
Tell us what you would like to see President Obama do with regard to HBCUs during his second term, using the comment box below.
From the debt-ceiling debate to protecting his girls, the president is taking no prisoners this year.
(The Root) -- Though we are just over a week into 2013, some are already calling this time period a defining one of the Obama presidential legacy. From his new approach to negotiating with the GOP to his efforts to fight for his children, we take a look at the president's boldest moves so far.
1. Wins the Fiscal-Cliff Negotiations
For any progressive unhappy with the outcome of the fiscal-cliff negotiations and therefore disputing the notion that the president won, here is proof that he did: No matter how unhappy any progressive may be with some aspect of the final result (such as the fact that those making between $250,000 and $400,000 did not see their taxes raised), there are many more conservatives who are unhappier still, among them Newt Gingrich and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who said, point-blank, the president won.
2. Goes to Bat for His Girls
Any adolescent boy looking to ask out Sasha and Malia anytime soon, be warned: The president is a very protective papa. The White House just sent a stern letter to a paparazzo who sold photos of Sasha and Malia Obama on their Hawaiian family holiday.
3. Nominates Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary
Very rarely do conservatives and gay Americans find themselves united in a high-profile political battle, but Hagel's nomination is one of those rare cases. The former Republican senator from Nebraska initially drew criticism for his comments in the '90s about a gay American nominated for a diplomatic post.
Though he has since apologized for the remark, there have been plenty of other ongoing criticisms of Hagel, the most impassioned of which appear to come from his own party. Many conservatives and pro-Israel groups have taken issue with his foreign policy record, including voting against sanctions against Iran while in the Senate. The president's response? He nominated him anyway.
4. Takes on the NRA -- and Doesn't Back Down
Gun control has been the one issue that virtually no politician, Democrat or Republican (with the exception of shooting-tragedy survivor Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), has had the courage to seriously discuss, let alone tackle, in the last decade. That all changed after the Newtown, Conn., massacre. But the president did something extraordinary. Instead of just talking, he did something almost immediately, and something meaningful.
He appointed his vice president head of a task force on gun control and actually empowered him to solicit and propose meaningful solutions. Some of those proposals are said to go even further than some gun control advocates have been pushing for, including more-efficient background checks of gun buyers, more-diligent mental-health review and more-careful tracking of firearms. News that is sure to be a relief for many victims of gun violence, and sure to be a nightmare for the NRA.
5. Daring His Foes in the Debt-Ceiling Debate
Here's what the president had to say about the looming debt-ceiling debate: "I will not compromise over ... whether or not Congress should pay the tab for a bill they've already racked up ... If Congress refuses to give the United States the ability to pay its bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy could be catastrophic.
The last time Congress threatened this course of action, our entire economy suffered for it. Our families and our businesses cannot afford that dangerous game again." Sen. Graham has said that President Obama is signaling with a number of recent moves that he will have a more "in your face" second term. The president's debt-ceiling comments seem to indicate the senator may be right.