President Barack Obama lists "Civil Rights" as the first item under his "Agenda" on his White House website, whitehouse.gov. He pledges to end gender and race based pay disparities, push through the Fair Pay and Employment Non-Discrimination Acts, harshly penalize voter fraud, outlaw racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies, provide financial incentives to local and state police to ban racial profiling, and to dump the race tinged drug sentencing disparities. Obama also promises to push through Congress the long stalled Matthew Shepard Act. This markedly expands hate crime prosecutions. None of these things are really new.
Obama pledged to take swift action on hate crimes, voting rights, employment discrimination, and the repressive drug laws on his campaign website. Yet they never got off the campaign website and were virtually non existent as campaign talking points.
Candidate Obama's reluctance to talk much about his civil rights agenda on the campaign trail was a calculated political move. Talk of civil rights has been taboo in all recent America presidential races. It seeps into presidential debates only when a Democratic or Republican presidential contender or president snatches the issue to assure middle class voters that he will not tilt toward or pander to minorities or to race bait their opponents.
In a 1988 debate, Bush Sr. slammed Democratic contender Michael Dukakis as being soft on crime for allegedly letting black convict Willie Horton roam free to commit rape and murder. Bill Clinton used Jesse Jackson as a foil to assure middle class voters that he would fight just as hard as conservative Republicans to protect their interests. In one of their debates in 2000, Bush and Democratic rival Al Gore clashed over affirmative action. Both were intent to distance themselves from the issue.
Obama knew that talk of civil rights invariably translates out to talk of race. This was a minefield that could blow up at any time and the explosion could mortally wound his candidacy. The endless TV sound loop of his former pastor Jeremiah Wright's inflammatory racial tirades in the midst of his fierce primary battle with Hillary Clinton sent momentary shell shocks through the campaign. It forced Obama to scramble fast and do damage control. The Wright flap guaranteed that race would not be even a vague utterance during the remainder of the campaign.
While presidential candidate Obama had to observe the rules of political expediency to win the White House, President Obama doesn't. Obama's political capital account is bulging. His public approval is sky high. And he has the bully pulpit of the White House. He can not only talk about civil rights issues with no risk of backlash but act on the agenda that he laid out on his campaign website and now highlights on his White House website.
The need for action is greater than ever. In its annual State of Black America reports the past decade, the National Urban League repeatedly warned that blacks are less likely to own their own homes, die earlier, are far more likely to be jailed disproportionately and receive longer sentences, receive less or poorer quality health care and earn far less than whites. They attend failing public schools, and are more likely the victims of racially motivated hate crimes than any other group.
The report also found rampant discrimination and gaping economic disparities between Latinos and whites. In the past decade, the income, and education performance gaps between blacks and Latinos and whites have only marginally closed, or actually widened. Discrimination remains the major cause of the disparities.
Shunting civil rights to the back burner of presidential campaigns almost always meant that once in office presidents shunt them to the backburner of their legislative agenda. Yet, presidents have not been able to tap dance around racial problems. Reagan's administration was embroiled in affirmative action battles. Bush Sr.'s administration was tormented by urban riots following the beating of black motorist Rodney King.
Clinton's administration was saddled with conflicts over affirmative action, police violence and racial profiling. W. Bush's administration was confronted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, voting rights, reparations, and affirmative action battles, gang violence, and failing inner city public schools. By ignoring, or downplaying these issues until they burst into flashpoints of national debate and conflict, presidents have been ill prepared to craft meaningful legislation and programs to deal with them.
Obama is way ahead of the policy curve on this. He's already spelled out what needs to be done on civil rights, but why it must be done. During the first 100 days, he will be watched more intently than any other president in recent history to see how effectively his administration deals with crisis problems from the Iraq War to the economy. The crisis problems of racial disparities and poverty, however, are no less compelling. President Obama it's now safe to talk about civil rights.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).