Introduction: Race, History, and Obama's Second Term

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In the summer of 2011, under siege from both the left and the right for his efforts to broker a budget deal to avoid a debt default, Barack Obama defended his leadership with a telling historical analogy. He noted that the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of which hangs on his Oval Office wall, outlawed slavery only in rebel states while allowing the practice to continue elsewhere in the country. This compromise, Obama noted, was necessary to keep Union-allied slave states like Kentucky and Missouri behind the war effort--and it was the Union's military superiority that ultimately enabled the freeing of all the slaves. Yet had partisan media outlets like the Huffington Post been around when Lincoln signed the Proclamation, Obama joked, the headline would have read: "Lincoln Sells Out Slaves"

Obama was making a fair point about the wisdom and necessity of compromise--a point later reflected in a memorable scene in the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, when the president, accused by abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of lacking a moral compass, responds that knowledge of true north is not enough to navigate past the swamps that stand between you and your destination.

Yet if compromise was a vital component of the Proclamation, it is worth remembering who precisely was asked to sacrifice. It wasn't the abolitionists, whose only real stake in the outcome was their moral convictions. It was African Americans, whose day of liberation was deferred. And the waiting, of course, would continue. For after the glory of emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment came the failure of Reconstruction and, with it, the stripping of black political and economic rights. The brutal reimposition of a white supremacist system under Jim Crow would survive another century and affect the trajectory of black America far beyond that.

On the eve of Obama's second inauguration, a day that falls almost exactly 150 years after the Proclamation went into effect, we thought it appropriate to devote this issue of the magazine to the subjects of race, history, and the condition of minorities in America today. For while it is true that Obama, as measured by his November vote totals, retains the overwhelming support of Americans of color, that support was accompanied by yet another political compromise. America, it seemed, would reelect its first black president, but only if he didn't talk about race.

Obama mentioned race fewer times in his first two years in office than any Democratic president since 1961, according to a study by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Daniel Gillon. When he has talked about it, it often has not gone well. When he said last year that if he had a son, "he would look like Trayvon" Martin, the young man who was killed tragically in Florida, he provoked a fierce backlash, not only from the predictable sources--Rush Limbaugh and the National Review--but also from more moderate groups that had previously condemned Martin's killing. Obama's simple expression of sympathy became instantaneously polarizing, a political liability both to himself and to those who would advocate for black issues. Perhaps chastened by the experience, Obama has since returned to his tried-and-true strategy of assiduously avoiding the topic of race.

This politically imposed cone of silence around the president makes it all the more difficult for the nation to acknowledge and confront discrimination in our society--and if you doubt such a thing still exists, consider the eight-hour lines this past fall at some polling stations in minority neighborhoods in Ohio and Florida after Republican-led governments narrowed early-voting laws. Or consider the AFL-CIO-sponsored poll showing that nationwide, 24 percent of Latino voters and 22 percent of African Americans waited longer than thirty minutes to vote in November, while only 9 percent of whites did.

The don't-talk-about-race stricture also makes it hard for the country to have an honest conversation about the many realms of American life in which minorities suffer disproportionately--even if overt discrimination isn't the driving cause. …