Grading Obama: Imani Perry

Illustration for article titled Grading Obama: Imani Perry

Has President Barack Obama's first term embodied the idealism of the 2008 campaign? The answer is debatable, according to interviews with nine prominent black academics in the run-up to next year's presidential election.


For the eighth in the series, The Root interviewed Imani Perry, professor of African-American studies at Princeton University. Read the other interviews here.

The Root: What were your expectations of President Obama's administration as that of the nation's first black commander-in-chief? Does he embody today whatever you saw in him during the campaign?


Imani Perry: I was excited about the election of the nation's first African-American president, believing it signaled a significant transformation in ideas of who is American and who is capable of representing us. However, I didn't expect that his priorities or values would be determined by his race.

Nor did I assume he would have particular concern for black communities. We had already had the examples of Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas and Colin Powell: national political figures who claimed their African-American identities but whose political allegiances and priorities differed from the vast majority of African Americans.

TR: Do you believe that Obama has adequately fought for the nation's black communities?

IP: I think Obama campaigned as a moderate Democrat on the issues, but he used the rhetoric and strategy of grassroots organizing. This created the impression that he was more liberal than he actually ever promised to be.


TR: What was your reaction to Obama's rousing "stop crying" speech to the Congressional Black Caucus?

IP: I didn't care for Obama's speech to the Congressional Black Caucus. I don't think he can have it both ways: on the one hand avoiding explicit discussion of race or specific concerns for the black community, and on the other taking the license to speak as an insider in the black community, offering harsh criticism to black representatives of largely black constituents. That said, I think both Obama and many members of the Congressional Black Caucus are unduly influenced by lobbyists and corporate donors who often have interests in conflict with what the voting constituents need.


TR: Do you believe that Obama has made marked strides toward a "postracial" America?

IP: There is nothing to suggest that we have made strides toward a postracial United States since 2008. But I don't think there has been a concerted effort at the national level to address the way racial inequality continues to shape the life outcomes of so many people. Voting for an African-American man for president is something many white Americans would not have done a generation ago. But that doesn't mean general attitudes toward African American have changed.


TR: In what areas of public policy, if any, do you believe Obama has most neglected the concerns of black Americans?

IP: When it comes to economic indicators, African Americans have been the hardest hit. All branches of the federal government have failed the citizenry. I don't single out Obama in this regard, but I also don't think we should protect him from the same criticism we would give any other politician.


Tomorrow: Marc Lamont Hill of Columbia University 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.

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