For Obama, a Missed Opportunity for a Teachable Moment

by Hugh Hamilton
March 29, 2009

Since taking office, Barack Obama has restored the art of rhetorical fluency to the presidential podium. His command of detail in the finer points of public policy has been refreshing, to say the least. He may not always get it right, but it’s clear that this is a president who does his homework. So it was all the more surprising that when called upon this week by ABC news reporter Ann Compton to comment on the role of race in his presidency thus far, President Obama fumbled the opportunity for what could have been a “teachable moment.”

Perhaps he was caught flat-footed by the question – after all, it is not often that “race” makes it to the top-ten list of topics selected for public discussion in polite society. But coming so soon after his own attorney general chided the American public for their reluctance to confront the issue, it was especially disappointing that the president did not seize the moment for a more expansive discourse on the intersection of race and public policy. We know that he is capable of rising to the occasion – as evidenced by his landmark speech on race delivered in Philadelphia one year ago this month. Maybe he thought that in light of the prevailing economic recession, this was not the right time to revisit the issue. But I would argue that this is precisely the moment to do so, as it offers a unique and invaluable opportunity to examine how our tormented legacy of race maintains a stranglehold on the lives of millions of contemporary Americans.

Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. So in the spirit of public service, I am offering herewith a primer on what the president might have said had he chosen to address Compton’s question with the expansiveness it deserved. First, here’s Compton’s actual question:

Compton: “Sir … Could I ask you about race?”
Obama:    “You may.”
Compton: “Yours is a rather historic presidency and I’m just wondering whether in any of the policy debates that you’ve had within the White House, the issue of race has come up, or whether it has in the way you feel you’ve been perceived by other leaders or by the American people. Or have the last 64 days been a relatively color-blind time?”

Now here’s the president’s actual response:

Obama:  “I think that the last 64 days has been dominated by me trying to figure out how we’re going to fix the economy, and that’s [as it] affects black, brown and white. And you know, obviously, at Inauguration I think there was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step to move us beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination in this country. But that lasted about a day. And you know, right now the American people are judging me exactly the way I should be judged and that is: are we taking the steps to improve liquidity in the financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to reopen, keep American safe? And that’s what I’ve been spending time thinking about.”

Not bad.
But here’s some of what I think the president also might have said, thereby elevating the public consciousness on this critical question:

Obama: “Let me be clear: as president of the United States, I am fully committed to securing and advancing the best interests of every single American, regardless of race, color or creed. But as president I must also acknowledge the facts as they are and confront them accordingly. And the fact is that this recession -- painful as it is for all of us -- has exacted a heavier toll on some than on others. And for those who historically have been marginalized and discriminated against on the basis of race, that toll has been heaviest of all.

It’s not just me saying this; as Market Watch reported just recently: The recession began before it began for some workers. With about 3.6 million jobs lost since the recession officially began just over a year ago, the reeling job market is not hitting all demographic groups equally. Among Blacks, the seasonably adjusted unemployment rate reached 12.6 percent in January, compared with the national rate of  7.6 percent. In fact, Black unemployment has been well above our current national rate since 2001.

And Blacks are not alone in this regard; among Hispanics, their unemployment rate of  nearly 10 percent is also well above the national level.

In times of severe economic hardship such as we are all experiencing today, some are able to cushion the blow by tapping into whatever reserves they might have accumulated in times of relative prosperity. But here again, Blacks are uniquely disadvantaged. The most recent research on wealth disparity in this country reveals that on average, people of color possess less than ten cents for every dollar of white wealth; only 14 percent of people of color have retirement accounts, compared to 43 percent of whites; and nearly 30 percent of Blacks have zero or negative worth, compared to 15 percent of whites.

Indeed, the African American community has been trapped in a recession since the turn of the century. Last September, the Economic Policy Institute sounded the alarm in a report titled, Reversal of Fortune, wherein the authors noted that since 2000, Blacks have been steadily losing what modest economic gains they acquired during the preceding decade. On all major economic indicators – income, wages, employment and poverty – African Americans were worse off in 2007 than they were seven years earlier.

The sub-prime mortgage crisis has made things even worse. For much of the past century African Americans were excluded as a matter of public policy from the opportunity to build wealth through government-subsidized home ownership. Low-interest mortgages guaranteed by the Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Authority enabled an entire generation of Americans to become middle-class homeowners – except if you were Black. As explained in the award-winning book, The Color of Wealth: “Overall, less than 1 percent of all mortgages went to African Americans between 1930 and 1960. Bankers received the FHA Underwriting Manual which included a ban on lending in integrated neighborhoods. Millions of African Americans who moved north after the war encountered opposition from white developers, lenders, realtors, local officials and white mobs determined to keep them out of white areas. Restrictive covenants were attached to deeds to require white owners to sell only to white buyers.”

Of course things have changed since then – both as a matter of law and public policy. But not before an entire generation of hard-working, patriotic, tax-paying African Americans was shut out from the opportunity to benefit from one of our country’s most significant periods of prosperity and growth.  By every economic measure, those who on the basis of race were denied the chance to buy a home with government help, and to give their children a leg up in life by passing on that equity to the next generation, are lagging behind their counterparts to this day.

Many of these very families were doubly victimized by the predatory lending practices that were a prominent feature of the recent sub-prime mortgage crisis. According to available data, people of color were more than three times more likely to be steered into sub-prime loans than whites. Now that the bubble has burst, one recent report estimates that the sub-prime crisis will constitute the greatest loss of wealth for people of color in modern American history.

As president, I carry with me the burden of that history and its enduring consequences. But I also carry with me the hope that we can construct in this country a framework for reparative justice that will enable us to begin the process of healing our legacy of past discrimination. I do not yet know what form that framework will take. But I do know that it cannot be color-blind any more than it can be gender-neutral. And I look forward to convening a national conversation with the American people on how best we can undertake this challenge in the period ahead.”