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. Those participating in these conversations with The Root include Kwame Anthony Appiah at Princeton, Ralph Richard Banks at Stanford Law School, Mark Anthony Neal of Duke University and Katherine Tate at the University of California, Irvine.
The consensus among these thinkers is that Obama's campaign unleashed unrealistic expectations about his commitment to the welfare of black Americans — whether it was about improving their economic status or intensifying urban gentrification. In this series of interviews, black scholars discuss the adequacy of Obama's initiatives tailored to the nation's black communities as well as their reactions to his rousing (to some observers, troubling) speech to the Congressional Black Caucus.
Moreover, they fundamentally agree that Obama's tenure has not ushered in an age of postracial equality. Sheer numbers tell this story: the disproportionate percentage among blacks of incarcerated prisoners, school dropouts and foreclosure victims.
In sum, those interviewed reveal a similar perspective toward Obama's black fellowship: Don't claim such a kinship when your policies have ignored, or have only modestly assisted, the most dispossessed — and when they have yet to disrupt private interests that supersede the public good.
All of the nine leading black scholars whom The Root interviewed were asked the same questions. First up is Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.
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?
Kwame Anthony Appiah: When President Obama was elected, I told my friends that we were going to have to get used to disagreeing with a president we liked. This wasn't because I was especially cynical about him. It was because it seems to me the presidency is a very constrained office, and it is extremely hard, even when you have both houses controlled by your party, to get things done.
TR: Do you believe that Obama has adequately fought for the nation's black communities?
KAA: On many topics, whatever his own private convictions, the president has done pretty much what a Republican (or most other Democrats) would have done, in ways that are a good deal more conservative than his campaign rhetoric.
TR: What was your reaction to Obama's rousing "stop crying" speech to the Congressional Black Caucus?
KAA: A weakened president with the House in enemy hands and a majority in the Senate that can be stopped by the rules of that body from doing almost anything is no doubt not in a good position, whatever his own racial identity, to counteract the long-term resistance of most Americans to grasping that we need to do something serious about the racial dimensions of inequality. Those who complain on this account should probably not focus their objections on the president.
TR: Do you believe that Obama has made marked strides toward a "postracial" America?
KAA: Given the ways in which African Americans have been disproportionately affected by the Great Recession, the failures of the administration to deliver, particularly for the worst off, have been particularly unhelpful for that part of the population.
TR: In what areas of public policy, if any, do you believe Obama has most neglected the concerns of black Americans?
KAA: In dealing with the financial crisis, for example, so it seems to me, his administration has done too little for the poor and too much to please the masters and mistresses of the world of finance.
Tomorrow: Katherine Tate of the University of California, Irvine, 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.