Advocates Search for Clues of President-Elect Obama’s Civil Rights Plans

Activists expect Obama to focus on a race-neutral public works program akin to FDR’s New Deal.

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As Barack Obama continues to prepare his team for the White House, political pundits aren't the only ones searching for evidence of his policy plans. Civil rights advocates, too, have found themselves in the new—and enviable—position of wondering how the first black president, a former civil rights lawyer and grass-roots organizer in low-income areas in Chicago, will grapple with still-unresolved civil rights challenges like unequal schools, segregated housing, and lagging economic opportunity for minorities.

By and large, Obama steered clear of these thorny, racially loaded questions during the campaign. He spoke eloquently about overcoming racial differences during the controversy surrounding his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and he occasionally addressed black cultural issues, chiding absent fathers in a pointed Father's Day speech this summer. But much of his electoral success, polls show, was due to his campaign's largely post-racial tone. There was little sign of the Obama who, after Hurricane Katrina, roundly condemned the treatment of poor blacks in New Orleans. "I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren't just abandoned during the hurricane," Obama said on the Senate floor in 2005. "They were abandoned long ago—to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate healthcare, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness."

Civil rights veterans recognize that there is a time and a place for such talk, of course. "If he'd done that [during the campaign] people would have painted him as a traditional black politician," says Kevin Alexander Gray, a civil rights organizer who was Jesse Jackson's South Carolina campaign organizer in 1988. "To win the vote of the soccer moms and NASCAR dads, he didn't have to appeal to black folks."

With the black community still celebrating Obama's achievement, many civil rights groups are now scrambling to get ready for what once seemed impossible: a president who is not only popular nationally but who "gets it," as Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown University, puts it. "I think we have a natural ally, with a natural affinity to address these issues."

The question, now, is how much Obama can actually do. "We've been in a honeymoon period where to a large extent folks were just happy," says James Rucker, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, an online black community group with more than 450,000 members. "Now we're moving from hypothetical mode to people saying we have to figure out what our agenda is so we can present it to Obama."

Obama himself has a clear record on civil rights, supporting antidiscrimination measures in the workplace and equal pay for women and minorities—along with some forms of affirmative action—but few expect him to push explicitly "black" policies as president. During the campaign, his focus was on the middle class, and with the economy in turmoil, much of his immediate agenda—from mortgage loan relief to extending unemployment benefits to increasing access to healthcare—goes beyond the boundaries of race. "I think he understands that politically there's a lot more support for race-neutral programs to help poor people than there is for race-conscious programs to help poor black people," says Michael Klarman, a Harvard law professor who has written extensively on civil rights history.

Instead, most civil rights leaders expect Obama to use the presidency's bully pulpit to frame issues like education and healthcare reform—as well as his proposals for economic stimulus and job creation—as a rising tide that lifts all boats. "He was careful not to run as the black candidate, and that served him very well," says Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP. "He has a great gift for explaining things to all Americans in ways which most people say, 'You know, that's right,' and he needs to use that gift broadly in the civil rights field."

A race-neutral public works program akin to FDR's New Deal—something civil rights leaders say they would like to see—would still be a boost for minorities, after all. By pushing for aid for victims of predatory lending, for example, Obama would disproportionately help blacks and Latinos, who were three times as likely to be sold subprime loans as whites. By fixing the crumbling infrastructure of public schools, he would increase opportunities for both inner-city blacks and rural whites. By supporting voting rights for the residents of Washington, D.C., who have no representation in Congress, he can help expand the electorate. "Obama's not naive. He knows there are particular problems that black people face," says Dyson. "But he isn't Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Obama seems shrewd enough to understand the necessity of [using language] that resonates with the entire American citizenry. If the civil rights way worked, those guys would be president."