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.
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?
Richard Thompson Ford: I think Obama has done just what an observant person would have expected of him. He ran as a thoughtful, intelligent and cautious political moderate, and that's precisely how he has governed.
A lot of people had unrealistic expectations of Obama because instead of listening to what he actually said, they engaged in wishful thinking and projection. Obama became a walking Rorschach test, in which voters saw their own desires and fears. Basically, I don't think race has made much difference in how Obama has governed — nor am I convinced that it should have.
TR: Do you believe that Obama has adequately fought for the nation's black communities?
RTF: I know that Obama has done a great deal behind the scenes: shifting the focus in administrative agencies and issuing executive orders. Much of what the executive can do is largely invisible to the average person, and given the current ideological climate, it's probably wise not to attempt to make a splash with a new initiative aimed at black communities.
TR: What was your reaction to Obama's rousing "stop crying" speech to the Congressional Black Caucus?
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.