Obama and Race Relations: Civil Rights Leaders Aren't Satisfied

Some thought the first African American president would herald in a new post-racial era.

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For all the symbolism of Obama's position in the White House, he has not yet used his bully pulpit to take on the issue of race. On several occasions, in fact, the president has seemed to deliberately shy away from the subject. When Attorney General Holder picked up the reins this winter, chiding Americans for being "a nation of cowards" on racial matters, Obama pushed back firmly. "I'm not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions," he said.

There is general agreement among civil rights leaders that Obama doesn't need to wade into the fray in the same way that, say, Al Sharpton has in the past. But some are beginning to worry that it is conservatives, not civil rights groups, who are seizing the political moment, using the promise of "post-racialism" to try to scale back protections for minorities in the legal system. Race is a central issue in at least four Supreme Court cases in the next term, and there has been a growing chorus on the right demanding the repeal of everything from affirmative action to the Voting Rights Act now that a black man is in the White House.

Some civil rights leaders are frustrated by Obama's refusal to point out how little has actually changed for the average black person—and how much minorities are struggling in the down economy. Black borrowers, for example, were more than twice as likely as whites to receive subprime loans and are losing their homes to foreclosure at much higher rates. But Obama's public pronouncements on the housing crisis have rarely reflected this disparity. "It's not clear the administration has figured out how to engage the public on race," says John Powell, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. "A lot of the people around Obama seem to think race is the third rail, and it's best to avoid it. Their major approach is 'We're going to do something for everybody.' But that's not really a solution."

In the weeks after Obama was elected, there was a wave of excitement over his selection of Holder to be the nation's first black attorney general, and civil rights groups cheered the number of African-Americans picked to join Obama's White House staff. But as the Obama administration has moved on to the business of governing, the first critics have emerged in the black community, some of whom point out that the first black president has made the same number of black cabinet appointments as Bill Clinton did—but without Clinton's intense focus on racial inequality.

After skimming over the issue of race in both his acceptance speech in November and his inaugural in January, Obama hasn't given a major speech on race since last year. Even then, for all his eloquence, Obama was forced to speak out, these critics say, because of the controversy over the inflammatory sermons of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "There's a whole lot of space between always talking about race and never talking about race," says Michael Fauntroy, an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University. "The only time he's ever talked about race was when his campaign was in a sling. There's a reticence on his part that I think is worrisome."

The Obama administration has taken some steps to allay these concerns, pushing legislation on workers' rights and opening a new office for urban affairs inside the White House. Still, some black leaders are beginning to grumble that the list of things Obama has not done is much longer. "If he can immediately say, 'I'm sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan,' he can immediately do some other things, too," says Kevin Alexander Gray, a civil rights veteran who was Jesse Jackson's South Carolina campaign organizer in 1988. "Black folks are afraid to go after Barack Obama because there's such a love fest, but where's the urban plan? You haven't seen it. A white person who was in office would have to talk about disproportionate poverty. It's not his fault, but it's starting to be his fault."