Grading Obama: Michael K. Fauntroy
Alexander Heffner’s Grading Obama series published in The Root is an interesting read. He asks a collection of Black academics the same questions and their responses reveal a surprisingly mixed view of President Obama’s first term. As an academic, associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, I want in the conversation. Below are my responses to Heffner’s questions. I encourage other academics, especially political scientists, to join in the conversation with their own responses.
Question 1: 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?
Michael K. Fauntroy: I didn’t have super high expectations and he has turned out to be who I thought he was. I watched his campaign – primary and general – carefully and concluded that he would be very similar to past presidents in that his talk about change was insufficiently specific. He has stayed true to his campaign but because many people were so happy to have someone other than George W. Bush, the reality of his political philosophy was somewhat obscured. He is a neoliberal and smartly allowed voters to apply their own hopes and aspirations upon him without having to really demonstrate who he was or what he was about.
Candidate Obama played cute in dealing with the obvious distinguishing characteristic, his race. On the one hand, he downplayed race (“there is no Black America or White America, there are the United States of America!”) which comforted nervous Whites. On the other, he played “wink-and-nod” with African Americans which left most Blacks accepting the “he’s got to play the game” logic without holding him accountable on the issues as other groups of Americans have.
Question 2: Do you believe that Obama has adequately fought for the nation’s black communities?
MKF: No. His first big opportunity was the 2009 economic stimulus package and he didn’t deliver. According to a 2010 report by the Kirwan Institute at The Ohio State University studying the first year of stimulus spending, African Americans own about 5.2% of all businesses, but received 1.1% of all federally contracted stimulus funds in the first year of the law. Those needing the most help got the least.
More stylistically, fighting for a group of citizens begins with making their plight known to everyone else. Black people have disproportionately been on the short end of the sub-mortgage crisis, the criminal justice system, and many other policy areas. I would like for him to make visible the suffering that many Black people are living under these days. That’s a start. And enough of this “Black men have to step up and be there for their children” stuff. I want my president to focus more on policy than anything else.
While President Obama is not responsible for the growth in economic disparity between African Americans and Whites, he doesn’t appear to have done much to reverse it.
Question 3: What was your reaction to Obama’s rousing “stop crying” speech to the Congressional Black Caucus?
MKF: I thought it was insulting. I get it that he thinks the CBC should be quiet and just do what he needs done, but that’s not enough for the people CBC members represent. CBC members represent constituencies in some cases with the highest unemployment, incarceration, and health problems and the lowest educational attainment. These members are on the front lines and hear from their voters all the time about what’s going on.
Lastly, he would not have dared to come out of his mouth like that to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, or any number of other organizations.
Question 4: Do you believe that Obama has made marked strides toward a “postracial” America?
MKF: Yes and no. His campaign and election obviously serve as important mileposts in the movement toward a more just racial society. His presidency has forced the country to expand its view of Black people generally and Black men in particular. For that he should be commended.
However, his unwillingness to use his bully pulpit to educate the country on racial issues and how corrosive they are to the nation as a whole, has been frustrating to me. He has a legitimacy that no other person in the history of this nation has (with the possible exception of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and has chosen to leave it on the table. I’m reminded of the “race speech” he gave during the campaign. While I saw it as rhetorical cotton candy for the consumption of nervous White suburban voters, he scored well with a full range of Americans. To my knowledge, he hasn’t really spent much time on it since, other than to say he can’t focus just on Black people because he is the president of everyone. It should be noted, however, that there is a lot of space between focusing only on Black people, on the one hand, and ignoring Black needs, on the other.
This speaks to my biggest frustration with the President. He has so much potential to permanently change the structure of racism in America but hasn’t done much with it. I am still hopeful he will.
Question 5: In what areas of public policy, if any, do you believe Obama has most neglected the concerns of black Americans?
MKF: I acknowledge he has a lot of things on his plate, but I think American criminal justice system is an abomination and is destabilizing Black communities all over the country. Black women have fewer men to choose from, too many of our children are fatherless, and men are released from prison without any real prospect for rehabilitation. While he can’t fix every aspect of this problem, much of this is on the states in our federal system, he can do something. I hope he will.
Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of numerous books and articles on race and politics. He earned a doctorate at Howard University and an undergraduate degree from Hampton University, both in political science. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.
(0) Make a Comment