The Obama Presidency and the Question of Social Justice: A Critical Analysis of the Meaningful Milestone

By Hanks, Lawrence J. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Obama Presidency and the Question of Social Justice: A Critical Analysis of the Meaningful Milestone


Hanks, Lawrence J., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


On January 20, 2009, essentially 200 years after the enactment of the embargo against the slave trade, 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th President of the United States of America. Using the one drop rule for racial designation which has prevailed in the USA for most of its history, America had elected its first black President. Using the new standard created by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2000, America now had its first commonly acknowledged bi-racial President. All can agree that Obama is not "wholly white,"--he is a "man of color" and therein lays the milestone; someone other than a white male was President of the United States of America. Analysts on the right were quick to declare that the US had overcome the challenge of race and the term "post-racial" abounded--from their perspective, race as a barrier to social justice had clearly been overcome. While acknowledging the achievement and progress of the major milestone, analyst on the left adamantly rejected the term "post racial" and argued that race still mattered with respect to one's life chances of success. (1)

The ultimate purpose of this paper is to analyze the validity of these competing claims. In order to contextualize this debate, a brief explication and analysis of the historical quest for African American equity will be provided. A crucial part of this analysis will include analysis of the internalist (conservative) and externalist (liberal) perspectives which became especially distinctive after the post WWII civil rights movement, i.e., the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and the demise of segregation as mandated by Alexander v Holmes County Board of Education in 1969. Finally, before dealing with its ultimate purpose, this work will offer a brief analysis of the Obama campaign and his presidency as it relates to the goal of social justice.

The Quest for African American Equity: The Pre-Slavery Era to the Age of Obama

According to Hegel, the dialectic is a clash of opposites in which every idea is opposed by a contrary idea. The dialectic is comprised of the first idea, the thesis, the opposing idea, and the antithesis. Out of the struggle between the two ideas comes a third idea, the synthesis. This process is a continuing one and is dynamic: as the synthesis becomes a thesis, which creates a new antithesis which results into a new synthesis and so forth. Since the civil rights movement, the competing thesis centered on the role of race and one's life chances. Internalists emphasize the progress while the externalists focus on the continuing challenges. Obama's election was indeed a prima facie boost for the internalists, thus, "The Age of Obama," yet a close analysis provides evidence for the externalists.

"The Age of Obama" is preceded by seven (7) distinctive era of American history. With respect to the quest for equity, each of these periods, may be characterized as either neutral, facilitative, or repressive. The periods are as follows: (1) The Pre-Slavery Era (1619-1641); (2) The Era of Slavery (1642-1865); (3) The Era of Reconstruction (1865-1877); (4) The Nadir (1877-1909); (5) The Era of the NAACP (1910-1954); (6) The Post World War II Civil Rights Movement (1955-1969); and (7) The Post Civil Rights Movement Era (1970-2008.) (2) With respect to their state sanctioned designations, the Pre-Slavery Era had no specific designations but slowly deteriorated into slavery by colonial governments. Approximately 223 years of state sanctioned slavery was followed by over 100 years of state sanctioned discrimination. The Post Civil Rights Movement Era provided, for the first time in the history of the country, a state policy of being on the record for providing equal protection of the law for all, including African American citizens. Whether or not this policy was successfully implemented was debated vigorously between 1970 and Obama's election in 2008.

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