Grading Obama: Katherine Tate


Whether or not President Barack Obama's first term embodies the idealism of the 2008 campaign is debatable, according to interviews with nine prominent black academics in the run-up to next year's presidential election.

For the second in the series, The Root interviewed Katherine Tate, professor of African-American studies at the University of California, Irvine's School of Humanities. 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?


KT: I think this was an important moment for America. Africans were brought to this nation as slaves, and although some vehemently disagreed with this perspective, some white leaders felt that blacks were never considered to be equal to whites and should not have political equality with whites. Obama won a Nobel Prize in 2009. I believe the world welcomed his election as a sign that nations can overcome racial hatreds and exploitation.

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

KT: I believe that he has not fought adequately, but he has done more than the last men serving in the White House. Presidents never have, except perhaps for Truman, stood up for blacks. His administration, however, is more responsive to blacks. Attorney General [Eric] Holder has settled important discrimination lawsuits against the government. The political system is more responsive, and so Obama is part of a process of change.

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


KT: I think the CBC is changing … and is unable to fight back in a satisfactory way. When President Clinton signed into law welfare reform in 1996, there was a big silence from the CBC, even though only one member voted for it. Politically, white America will never accept [a] "righteous-justice campaign" from black Americans. I think we need black interest groups, including the black church, to stand up and respond to political leadership that wrongly implies that black Americans are wrong in seeking redress for the problems that are rooted in America's racism toward blacks. I think the CBC should stand down and let other civil rights and religious leaders make this case.  

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


KT: Obama's election has widened the door so that government is becoming more responsive to the interests of marginalized groups. I see this in health reform, the ending of the ban on gays and lesbians in the military and even Obama's support of the Dream Act for undocumented young Latinos. His administration will stand against conservative-court policymaking and point to a more inclusive future for all Americans.

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


KT: I would like the president to find and point to evidence that his administration has helped black people keep their homes, keep their resolve to find employment and find employment. He needs to point to black families with disabled children who can get health insurance now. He needs to point to the families with young adults not in college year-round whom they can keep on their policies. Black Americans in surveys are among the most hopeful, and his biggest fans. He needs his political-campaign managers to tell black America all that his administration has done.

Tomorrow: Stanford Law professor Ralph Richard Banks 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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