President Obama cannot single-handedly undo racial inequality that was built through centuries of discrimination, and it would be absurd to suggest that he could. However, he can do more in his second term to pursue the equality and fairness that America promises to its people.
Some slices of reality: African Americans have lost half of their wealth relative to white Americans in the financial crisis. They face the highest rates of unemployment and incarceration, and have alarmingly low high school graduation rates in major cities. Although the Obama administration and the Justice Department have taken measures to pursue employment discrimination cases and reduce sentencing disparities, there is much more that should be done.
For example, in addition to lowering mandatory minimum sentences, the administration should stop funding the Byrne grant program, which provides federal money for state and local criminal law enforcement. These grants are often awarded to cities and states with high rates of arrest and conviction, therefore encouraging aggressive policing.
As is well known, high incarceration rates reduce employability and civic participation, and weaken family bonds. The president and his congressional allies ought to advocate for legislation that would ban employers from requiring former felons to identify themselves as such. This might help address the incredibly high unemployment among ex-offenders and better enable them to rebuild their lives after serving their time.
We are also in dire need of a federal jobs program focused on geographic areas where unemployment and poverty are pervasive. Likewise, we need the federal government to support public education, rather than encouraging schools to privatize or become charters, which are often run by corporations and non-educators and displace trained teachers.
Public education is less stable and schools aren’t any better under Obama’s Race to the Top program. One of the hallmarks of American progress in the 19th and early 20th centuries was universal public education, and we must revitalize that commitment if we want to create a level playing field. Support and respect for the teaching profession, sustaining a structure in which school boards are accountable to constituents, and an approach to reform that is rooted in best practices according to research and that fosters community-school partnerships would be a far more effective model for addressing the racial opportunity gap.
Obama’s Affordable Care Act increased access to health care for Americans across the board. But care is still too expensive for those between the very poor and the stable middle class. Though a public insurance option would be best, at the very least the president should revise his signature health-care legislation to cap out-of-pocket costs for people who don’t qualify for Medicaid yet cannot afford high co-pays or expensive medications. The working almost-poor, who are disproportionately black and brown, need a more aggressive public health agenda to address the racial gaps in longevity and wellness.
These are just a few legislative and administrative initiatives the president might use to reduce inequality. The question of moral leadership on racial issues is distinct but complementary. Although Americans claim to embrace racial egalitarianism, abundant research shows that from schooling to employment to retail, car and home purchases, people are treated differently on the basis of race.
The president ought to challenge us in word and deed to do better, and we ought to challenge him, Congress and the courts in return. Instead of seeking a post-racial nation, we ought to be pursuing a racially just one.
Imani Perry, the author of “More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States,” is a professor of African American studies at Princeton University.
Step up, Mr. President: No more worries about reelection. Now you can tackle those issues that you said had to wait for your second term. Outlook has given you a head start on how to address immigration, climate change, banking reform and racial inequality.