I remember when Sen. Barack Obama confronted race in America in an eloquent and powerful 2008 speech, promising to work for a “more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.” He pledged to take on “the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through.” Sadly, Obama is falling short of the president who accomplished the most for communities of color since Lincoln: white Southerner Lyndon Johnson. He is also falling short of another white, Southern president who pursued a national dialogue on race: Bill Clinton.
History shows that when presidents confront racial inequity, America sees vast improvements. President Johnson pushed for passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Black voter registration rates in the covered states soared. In 1964, less than 7 percent of eligible blacks were registered to vote in Mississippi. By the end of 1966, nearly 60 percent were registered. And Johnson’s “War on Poverty” helped reduce the black poverty rate from 55 percent in 1959 to 33 percent in 1970.
Clinton’s record is not as good as Johnson’s was, but his willingness to confront racial injustice does trump Obama’s. Clinton supported hate-crime legislation and opposed racial profiling. Unemployment rates for blacks and Latinos dropped steadily during his presidency. He also instituted a national commission on race relations, which did little to fix racial inequities but demonstrated his willingness to push for a national dialogue on race.
Obama has done some good for communities of color but not nearly enough. His proposed jobs bill hopefully will put some Americans back to work, but it will not alleviate the broad economic exclusion of people of color. This group is the fastest-growing segment of our working-age population, yet they have the hardest time finding jobs. One in six blacks and one in eight Latinos are jobless, compared with one in 12 whites. A study by the Center for Social Inclusion shows that of the seven occupations with the highest salaries, six are overrepresented by whites. Three of the six lowest-paid occupations are disproportionately represented by people of color.
Joblessness aside, far too many black and Latino homeowners are struggling after being sold subprime mortgages when they were eligible for much better ones. One study shows that blacks earning $350,000 a year were more likely to get a subprime loan than whites earning $50,000 a year. The foreclosure rates among blacks are 76 percent higher than for whites; among Latinos, foreclosure rates are 71 percent higher than for whites. To address this racial housing crisis, Obama must demand that people of color have access to fair home and business credit. Lack of such access destroys the black and Latino middle class.
Obama can also help hardworking women of color by directing the Department of Labor to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to make clear that home health aides are entitled to wage and overtime protections. He can ensure that communities of color get locally controlled broadband service, which provides access to education and employment opportunities. This means pushing further than the latest iteration of the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund to connect the 18 million Americans who lack Internet access in rural and poor, urban communities. Obama should call on the FCC to ensure subsidies for local and regional service providers, including nonprofit organizations, to stimulate local economies.
Education is also high on the long list of inequities for people of color. According to the Department of Education, black students are three times more likely to be suspended from school and 3.5 times more likely than white students to be expelled. This is unacceptable, given that nationwide only 50 percent of black and 53 percent of Latino students graduate from high school. Children pushed out of schools are less likely to be employed and more likely to be incarcerated — one in four black dropouts spends time in prison. Obama can easily create a bipartisan commission to investigate racial discrimination in school discipline.
Last but not least, Obama should use the virtuosic oratory skills we heard in his 2008 “more perfect union” speech to encourage leaders to move away from one-size solutions that do not fit all. Both Clinton and Johnson believed racial equity would not come from racial blindness. Obama should learn from his white Southern predecessors. He has the skills to shepherd us into “a more perfect union,” and we need him to do it now.
The writer is founder and executive director of the Center for Social Inclusion.