There's this thing people sometimes say down South.
So-and-so is "acting brand new." Sometimes that's a reference to people behaving like they don't know old friends and family — that they have evolved past their old crowd. Sometimes that's Southern-speak for the emboldened, people behaving like they either don't know the rules or have outright decided to disregard them.
In the past four weeks, we've seen President Obama take up residence in a place that sits somewhere in-between.
He's spoken off the cuff about race relations on a widely circulated podcast (even using the n-word) and then eloquently followed that with what can only be described as a sermon on race relations in America before breaking into song. He's challenged America to go deeper in its support of equality than retiring symbols of slavery (such as the Confederate flag) and impolitic words (such as the n-word).
While eulogizing a slain minister and state lawmaker allegedly killed by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., he outlined a whole raft of ways in which discrimination remains and inequality continues to grow. And now, in the span of two weeks, he has announced two major reform packages — housing last week and criminal justice on Tuesday — that could, if ultimately implemented, be of particular benefit to people of color in the United States.
Here's the thing: This Obama might look or sound "brand new" to some Americans. He might even sound a little something like the black president some white Americans across the political spectrum feared (or hoped for). But to people who watch the White House closely, this is the President Obama who has been developing for some time.
On Tuesday, Obama addressed the 106th national convention of the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. It's worth noting here that the NAACP was founded by a cross-racial group of civil rights warriors ultimately responsible for some of the most sweeping legal reforms of the 20th century. But the NAACP isn't as highly regarded these days as it once was. In the 1990s, the NAACP saw a sharp decline in membership and was itself focused on issues such as retiring the n-word, before rebuilding its membership by expanding its activism to include things like anti-death penalty work and school-funding reform.
Still, in the eyes of some Americans, the NAACP is a partisan organization. Some on the right have even called it a "hate group."
But Obama came to the NAACP convention and laid out a criminal-justice reform agenda that included everything from calls for a close and hard look at what sends people to jail, which crimes and which defendants get the longest sentences, the use of solitary confinement and the loss of voting rights after release. That agenda, Obama said, also has to include resolving the massive disparities in school quality and discipline that federal data tells us begin in pre-kindergarten classrooms.
When combined with a whole host of other inequities Obama mentioned — who graduates from high school and college, who is employed, who lives in the safest and best-equipped communities and how police view their responsibilities to different neighborhoods — these produce exceedingly elevated arrest, conviction and incarceration rates for black and Latino men. That in turn splinters families and concentrates long-term joblessness, poverty and a rather logical but dangerous degree of hopelessness in those same communities. You can read more about the specifics of the criminal justice reforms Obama called for here, here and here.
Obama talked about the fact that some people in jail need to be there, at least for some period of time. And he didn't lambaste law enforcement.
Still, this Obama didn't do what he has so many times before. He didn't lecture black America about its behavior while making only passing mention of some of the social and economic conditions that solid research — not just political ideology — tells us has at least helped to foster inequality. He gave a full airing to his sense that there is a need for wholesale policy reforms. And he stayed completely clear of the politically expedient and at times outright popular act of saying that young black men should do something about the way some wear their pants or how they speak.
This Obama did not avoid the fact that mass incarceration and sexual violation in prison have become accepted features of life for some segments of America (so much so that they are now part of the American joke-making firmament). He mentioned both. And Obama put the price tag of mass incarceration, American-style, at more than $80 billion a year.
That's a tab that could be used to build better roads and bridges and schools, Obama said. Or it could cover the cost of universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old in America or the cost of college tuition at every public college and university in the United States.
How did we get here? And what became of that Obama who once so famously opined about the futility of any discussion about a black and white America and deepening divisions between red states and blue?
Back in 2012, when Obama had just been reelected, the leaders of some of the country's biggest civil rights groups often talked privately about the fact that Obama had made public commitments and taken concrete steps to advance the interests of environmentalists, immigrants and gay Americans. That same president, these leaders often said privately and sometimes publicly, could hardly be counted on to mention the word race, much less aggressively push ideas that might address racial inequality.
But lots of reporters who watch the White House for a living say the Obama administration was stung by the 2010 midterm elections and Democrats' staggering defeat, despite years of what they saw as pragmatic compromise. So the administration went big with executive orders and administrative actions on the environment, immigration, trade and other issues. There have also been some defeats — in court and in the court of public opinion — but then, there have also been some legal and social victories in the past eight weeks.
And there have stunning moments — in Sanford, Fla.; in New York; in Ferguson, Mo.; in North Charleston, S.C.; in Baltimore and in Charleston, S.C. — that have made the continued significance of race harder for the White House and larger swaths of America to ignore. Combine that with the waning months of Obama's presidency, and the timing makes sense.
And there was something else that happened in that podcast with comedian Marc Maron. There was something Obama said long after that n-word exchange that should not be ignored.
"I know what I am doing, and I’m fearless," Obama said.