Let’s be real: even if your love for former President Barack Obama runs deep, most people aren’t thinking about their favorite President this weekend.
But Presidents have an undeniable impact on the lived conditions of Black Americans. So this President’s Day, we thought it would be a good idea to talk about some of the best and WORST Presidents for Black Americans.
Was Barack Obama The Best President for Black Americans?
Of course we cannot have this conversation without talking about the first Black President, Mr.Barack Obama. I don’t need to show you a poll to prove that Obama is still incredibly popular among Black Americans. Although, if you want one, I can tell you he has a nearly 83 percent favorability rating among Black Americans, according to YouGov.
But his legacy is more nuanced when you talk to Black scholars like Howard Political Science Associate Professor Dr. Keneshia Grant.
“It’s a bit of a mixed bag,” says Grant, “because he is Black and has done things that were helpful to Black people but did not do them in the name of Blackness.”
Grant points to the Affordable Care Act as a clear example of a policy that greatly benefited Black Americans. The uninsured population of Black Americans dramatically decreased due to the ACA.
“I think it’s also the case that there are things that are happening that Black people are not excited about for Barack Obama,” said Grant, referencing the deportations of Haitian migrants during the Obama years.
Which Historical Presidents Were The Best for Black Americans?
Unfortunately, this is not a straightforward question. Presidencies are inherently shaped by the events and political climate around them, including the makeup of Congress, says Grant.
But we can look at the impact of the policies they’ve pushed and the rhetoric they used.
Experts listed Franklin Delano Rosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln as Presidents who were able to push for policies that benefited Black Americans.
“Jimmy Carter, everyone loves him because of his attention to issues around farming in some of the veteran’s issues that [impacted] a large amount of Black people who live in the South,” says Howard Afro Studies and Political Science Professor Jo Von McCalester.
Then there’s President Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.
“In the Black community Abraham Lincoln is heralded for freeing the slaves,” says McCalester. “But if you take a little closer look, he had absolutely horrible things to say about Black people.”
Alright, so the “great emancipator” is a bit more complicated than our history books mention. What about FDR?
When it comes to the New Deal, the set of progressive economic policies most associated with FDR years, Black Americans did see benefits, says Grant, but we were also cut out of a lot of the new opportunities.
“The New Deal comes at a time where America is coming out of an economic crisis,” says Grant. “It is among the first federal policies that allows people to get some relief. It’s important to note that the New Deal is imperfect in that it does not allow Black people to have relief at the same rate.”
(If you want to know more about how Black Americans were explicitly cut out of the New Deal, check out when Affirmative Action Was White).
You can’t write a story about Presidents’ impact on Black Americans without discussing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In case you needed a little history refresher, President Lyndon B. Johnson spearheaded both of these laws.
“It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act,” says Grant. “LBJ came to the presidency from the Senate and uses some of his political capital and some of his ability to get things done in the Senate as a way to ensure that these things pass.”
Who Were The Worst Presidents For Black Americans?
You might imagine that this conversation completely devolved into a rant about former President Donald J. Trump. And while he made the list, much of the focus fell on former President Ronald Reagan.
“Reagan is responsible for the war against drugs,” explains McCalester. The “war on drugs” was massively responsible for the boom in mass incarceration, which devastated Black communities.
Subsequent Presidents, including George Bush Sr., only compounded the harm of the drug wars, says McCalester.
Reagan also decimated the social safety net, explicitly targeting Black communities under the made-up guise of the welfare queen.
President Andrew Johnson, who, in addition to terrorizing Native Americans was incredibly anti-Black, also made McCalester’s list of worst presidents for Black Americans.
How Does President Joe Biden Stack-up Against Past Presidents?
For our current President, Joe Biden, we decided to chat with Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who has spent the last 40-plus years in politics.
“Biden made a promise that Black people had his back and he was gonna have our back,” says Representative Waters, “And we think that he’s done a very good job of that.”
Representative Waters pointed to his appointment of several Black officials to head federal agencies, including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge.
She also praised Biden for his leadership during the pandemic.
“So we’re very pleased that his time in office has shown that he really does care about the Black community,” says Representative Waters.
Naturally, we couldn’t just talk to Biden’s political allies about his Presidency.
McCalester points out that Biden and Democrats are often hamstrung by their desire to appear as unifying figures at the expense of policies that could benefit Black Americans and all marginalized groups.
“You do realize that you have the ability to change the lives of people,” says McCalester. “[But] you didn’t because you were more concerned with I don’t want to look like Republicans.”
For Grant, Biden’s willingness to publicly speak to Black Americans in a way no past President has bothered to do is relevant to how she views his Presidency.
“If 10 Black people are killed in a grocery store in Buffalo, I want you to be able to acknowledge that this was racism,” says Grant. “If a president can say this is a racist thing that happened or policing is systematically problematic or some other thing that makes it clear that he understands what I feel and what I believe... I think that matters a ton.”