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

By Glastris, Paul | The Washington Monthly, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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


Glastris, Paul, The Washington Monthly


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?