Sunday Commentary: President’s Missed Opportunity, America Remains Divided on Race

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racism

One of the big questions for President Barack Obama’s speech would be for him to figure out how to thread the needle – to exalt the progress of the last fifty years while not becoming complacent about the challenges that remain.

How would he honor the spirit of those who fought for civil rights, and yet understand that, while we have come far, we have not come nearly far enough?

This week, President Obama honored “those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV,” who would fight “on the battlefield of justice, men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame would liberate us all, in ways that our children now take for granted as people of all colors and creeds live together and learn together and walk together, and fight alongside one another and love one another, and judge one another by the content of our character in this greatest nation on Earth.”

He laid out their struggles: “Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters, had lived in towns where they couldn’t vote, in cities where their votes didn’t matter. There were couples in love who couldn’t marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home. They had seen loved ones beaten and children fire-hosed.”

“They had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate,” the President said. “And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us.”

He threaded that needle well when he said, “To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed — that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years,” as he listed the names of those killed in the struggle – Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Martin Luther King, Jr.

He argued, “They did not die in vain.  Their victory was great.”

At the same time, he said, “But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether it’s by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all in the criminal justice system and not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.”

At the same time, the struggle for integration is remarkably still with us.  The timing is interesting and perhaps planned, but this week, Wired Magazine published a fascinating article using technology to demonstrate just how racially segregated we remain.

They write, “Last year, a pair of researchers from Duke University published a report with a bold title: “The End of the Segregated Century.” U.S. cities, the authors concluded, were less segregated in 2012 than they had been at any point since 1910.”

However, “less segregated does not necessarily mean integrated.”

A map created by Dustin Cable at University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service shows one dot per person, color coded by race.

White people are shown with blue dots; African-Americans with green; Asians with red; and Latinos with orange, with all other race categories from the census represented by brown.

The result is a 7 GB visual map of 308,745,538 dots.

The result is fascinating.  They write, “Looking at the map, every city tells a different story. In California, for example, major cities aren’t just diverse, they’re integrated to a great degree, too. We see large swaths of Sacramento dotted variously with reds, blues, oranges, greens and browns. Los Angeles is more distinctly clustered, but groups still bleed into one another.”

Then there is the Midwest, and the racial divide is “shockingly exact.”  For instance, in Chicago there are bands of blacks and whites, represented by the green and blue dots.

Then there is Detroit, one of the most segregated cities in America.

About ten years ago, the movie featuring Eminem came out, 8 Mile. North of 8 Mile Road is a largely white community, though with some mixing as you move south.  South of 8 Mile Road is almost all black with only tiny pockets of Asians.

Wired writes, “In Detroit, the most segregated city in America according to one recent study, there’s no buffer at all. We see how 8 Mile Road serves as the dividing line between two largely homogenous swaths – one predominantly white and one predominantly black.”

Wired concludes, “Responding to the Duke University study last year, experts were quick to expound on the complexities of the issue. Housing desegregation, one pointed out, is not a magic bullet for equal opportunity. Another made it clear that blacks remained more segregated from whites than Latinos or Asians. Here, at least, Cable’s given us a chance to see how things stand today in greater detail than ever before.”

Here’s the full map: http://demographics.coopercenter.org/DotMap/index.html

It is a fascinating look at the color divide in this country and how, despite 50 years of progress, we still remain a nation divided along racial lines, in part because we live apart from each other.

The challenge for the President was really to figure out a way to bridge that gap and President Obama would seek to join the races against a common adversary, much as Dr. King did through his poor man’s marches toward the end of his life.

But many will argue that it was here that the President failed to deliver.

The President said, “Dr. King explained that the goals of African-Americans were identical to working people of all races: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures — conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

The position of all working Americans, he said, “regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive.”

He added, “For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate. Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities across this country, in cities and suburbs and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial violence.”

He would acknowledge some of the shortcomings: “If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots.”

He said, “Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.”

“What had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself,” he said. “All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided.”

Did President Obama do what he had to do in this speech?  Some criticize the President for blaming people of color for persistent economic equality, although perhaps that was the message many perhaps wanted to hear.

As the news site Bloomberg noted, “The commentary has been all about how far and how little the nation has traveled since that day in August 1963 when Martin Luther King, Jr. described his dream of racial and economic equality.”

The editorial continues that, while blacks may no longer be forced to ride in the back of the bus, “poor Americans who are black are less likely than poor white households to own a car. No, there are no longer blatantly racist literacy tests for black voters — but attempts to restrict the right to vote persist. Yes, the poverty rate has declined — but it remains far higher for black Americans than for whites.”

While I have read a lot of commentaries on the failure of Obama’s speech, to me there are two primary failures.

First, there was the failure of the President to move beyond rhetoric and make some proscriptive calls for change.

As one commentary noted, while it never could have lived up to the speech of the 1963 march, “the grievances this time were ill defined and most speeches were a procession of predictable we’ve-come-so-far-but-have-so-far-to-go remarks that could have been said in 1973 (and, alas, will probably be repeated in 2053).”

And you might wonder, well, what could the President have said, while avoiding turning it into a State of the Union address with calls for Congress to act?

To me, the clear nexus that was missing is the New Jim Crow – the linkage between poverty-criminality-incarceration.  The argument as we have laid down is that, while we can criticize those who allow poverty to be an excuse for not raising one’s child, we must also take responsibility for understanding how the present system makes that exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

We now understand that, by putting people into the system, we make it far more difficult that they can ever escape, but the President never acknowledged what Eric Holder had a few weeks ago – and without bringing that piece to bear on the situation, we will never bridge the racial divide.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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17 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: President’s Missed Opportunity, America Remains Divided on Race”

  1. Davis Progressive

    the graphics are very interesting, neat to see the contrasts there, it illustrates the problem very clearly. i certainly didn’t hear what i was expecting to hear from obama based on the last few speeches on this topic. i think he missed a chance to move the discuss forward. unfortunately, we’ll be stuck with trite comments from the right here.

  2. biddlin

    “First, there was the failure of the President to move beyond rhetoric and make some proscriptive calls for change.”
    What would you have him proscribe, prejudice, ignorance, Paula Deen sausage, spoonerism?
    If you meant prescriptive, I might agree, however, for reasons that elude me, the president is trying to embrace even the most hateful and prejudiced among us. No doubt the result of a Christian upbringing.
    Biddlin ;>)/

  3. Mercy4all

    I really agree with david on this one. a through analysis. His reference to the “new Jim Crow”) a book by Professor Alexander is right on point. The decision to wage the “war on drugs” through the criminal justice system has been an unmitigated disaster. Destructive without question of the lives of so many and especially persons of poverty and color.

    aside from that just one more point. I have come to believe that integration/segreagation can best in these times be understood economically. What Obama spoke to was the days which are thankfully substantially past, of seperate drinking fountains parks and such “seperate but never equal. ” That is for the most part over. yet segregation remains. Malcom X in his autobiography spoke of his pilgrimage to mecca and to his observation that groups of muslims stayed with persons and groups most like themselves. He meant this racially. I think its more economic and common experiences driven. you live where folks are most like you, as well as you can afford. Or you live where you have to, for economic reasons. what we have accomplished post the march is an appreciation of divertsity in race so long as your neighbor shares your basic values and conducts her/him self accordingly. And Obama spoke to that and to the journey remaining, to change the economic reality of the poor by their own efforts and the creation of social and economic/educational opportunity. how we get there in this polarized society and government, ah, the devil is in the details. but one of them is very helpful. Obama and Erick Holder, the attorney general have created a new policy on marijana. the feds will apparantly only enforce marijana laws to the extent states enforce them. so long as any legalization is carefully regulated (and taxed). that this only applies to marijana is inadequate in my view but a great first step.

    again, david a great analysis of last weeks rememberence.

  4. Frankly

    When something is not working, stop doing it and start doing somethings else.

    The media, political and social narrative on racism is all wrong. It is based on a tired old race template that stopped being valid at least 50 years ago.

    We stubbornly and ignorantly continue to mouth the same hyped and broken claims of “institutional racism” and demand another “conversation about race”. These things are compelling because they are more morally dramatic. But drama is only selling media, fixing political scores and keeping race-obsessed liberals feeling like the own a seat of moral superiority… the drama it is not helping the minority.

    We need a tranformational focus on race in America. One that borrows on the principles of Positive Psychology. One that treats equality equally and give all people of different race the dignity of common human expectations.

    Every child needs to constantly hear that he is special individually, with no race-based discounts and no need for anyone to come to his rescue just because of his race. He needs to learn that ignorant and mean people will always exist, and that his need to cope with their crap has little to do with race, and much to do with being human.

  5. Davis Progressive

    “When something is not working, stop doing it and start doing somethings else.

    The media, political and social narrative on racism is all wrong. It is based on a tired old race template that stopped being valid at least 50 years ago.”

    you seem to assume the problem is the “narrative” rather than the policies that address racism. david has been focused on the idea that policies preclude people from escaping the cycle, do you disagree with that?

  6. Frankly

    Policies, narrative… what’s the difference? They are really one and the same. The narrative begets policy, and policy causes more rumination about the same old and tired narrative.

    Those stuck in the narrative are unwilling to let it go. They just demand more of the same. But we have many years of evidence now that their prescriptions are not working. In fact, they are making things worse. So, when do we admit this and go to plan B?

  7. Davis Progressive

    “Policies, narrative… what’s the difference? “

    you’re really asking this? the current policy as laid out here – and you continue to dodge – is causing the problem. until we change the criminal justice system, we will not make further progress. in my view that has NOTHING to do with what YOU are call a NARRATIVE.

  8. Frankly

    The criminal justice system causing the different outcomes for minorities is part of the narrative. Is is a false narrative. The ciminal justice outcomes are a symptom of problems that you are others dodge. Changing the criminal justtice system to operate with a sort of affirmative action for crime and punishment will NOT fix any of the root causes for crappy outcome statistics for minorities. It will likely cause other problems… that the race-baiters will again try to fit into their self-serving narrative.

    I support more lienient crime and punishment for non-violent, non-adicting drugs for the simple reason that continued doing the same is ALSO not solving any problems and it is costing us billions. It has nothing to do with race… even though you and others want to make it part of your racism narrative.

  9. Davis Progressive

    “The criminal justice system causing the different outcomes for minorities is part of the narrative. “

    the criminal justice system is causing different outcomes for minorities, that is a demonstrated fact.

    ” The ciminal justice outcomes are a symptom of problems that you are others dodge.”

    i agree that it is a symptom of problems, however the problems are compounded by the illogic of the system. does it make sense for the people who are charged with minor felonies to be prohibited from jobs, voting, and services? or does that simply put those convicted of minor crimes into a situation where they almost have to commit additional crimes to survive?

    i don’t believe that this is intentionally directed toward minorities, but they are disproportionately impacted as they tend to be more likely impoverished to begin with. then we have the ridiculous discrepancy in arrest rates for similar crimes, conviction rates, longer sentences, etc.

  10. medwoman

    Frankly

    [quote] One that treats equality equally and give all people of different race the dignity of common human expectations.
    [/quote]

    Does this not also imply that if there is inequality to begin with, then the situations should not be dealt with
    “equally”? I am all for treating equals equally. However, I find it very hard to believe that the child of a a millionaire and the child of a family living on the street are starting out as equals. Therefore, it is my belief that more of society’s resources should go to the latter. Statistically speaking, this will mean that more will be going to minority children than to whites in our country. This is a matter of numbers, not of convincing these children that they are “less special” or “more needy” because of the color of their skin, but rather because of the particulars of their circumstances. Anything less is to deny reality.

  11. JustSaying

    “i don’t believe that this is intentionally directed toward minorities, but they are disproportionately impacted as they tend to be more likely impoverished to begin with. then we have the ridiculous discrepancy in arrest rates for similar crimes, conviction rates, longer sentences, etc.”

    Every time we get rolling on one of these race and justice system discussions, I keep drifting back to wondering how much of the differential treatment can tie back to historic wealth disparity as opposed to race.

    The New Jim Crow concept implies there’s an intentional effort to continue a form of slavery in the country. Professor Alexander hasn’t yet gotten everyone aboard her really interesting, sometimes simplistic, characterizations.

    Would we be more successful if we tried focus on poverty issues and tried to decouple the racism connections for awhile? Alexander sees poor whites as responsible for continuing racism against African Americans in recent decades.

    Poor Whites, poor Blacks and poor Hispanics share many of the poverty-based problems that keep all down in our society–quality legal representation, lengthy incarceration for what many seem as “minor” crimes, absentee parents, school dropouts, poor mobility into higher social classes, and on and on.

    While the stats show differences by race, the bad outcomes are too high all around and the good ones are too low. If we feel the need to find a racism aspect in every bad situation that has shared misfortune regardless of race, are we hampering are ability to make progress for all impoverished?

  12. medwoman

    JustSaying

    [quote]If we feel the need to find a racism aspect in every bad situation that has shared misfortune regardless of race, are we hampering are ability to make progress for all impoverished?[/quote]

    If we find racism in every bad situation, of course we would be hampering our ability to make progress….
    but I would say no more so than if we are blind to those situations in which racism does play a role.

  13. SouthofDavis

    Medwoman wrote:

    > Does this not also imply that if there is
    > inequality to begin with

    There is an inequality to begin with (going back a long time)…

    I have friends that are of African, Haitian, Jewish and Swiss decent, but over all I see the families of Swiss and Jewish decent doing a lot better than the families of African and Haitian decent. All cultures don’t do things the same way (I’m not a member of any of the above groups, I’m just an observer)

    > I am all for treating equals equally. However,
    > I find it very hard to believe that the child
    > of a a millionaire and the child of a family
    > living on the street are starting out as equals.

    One of my close friends is an super smart African American guy that married in to an African American family with a lot of Cal and Stanford grads (his sister in law is a Cal professor). He is a millionaire (just barely) but if I had to bet whose kids would do better his kids, or the kids of the Swiss or Jewish guy that just came her with nothing I would bet on the Swiss or Jewish family since they have a “culture” of doing well (and not getting in to trouble)…

  14. AdRemmer

    Mass Media and Racism by Stephen Balkaran

    Yale University

    “Mass media have played and will continue to play a crucial role in the way white Americans perceive African-Americans. As a result of the overwhelming media focus on crime, drug use, gang violence, and other forms of anti-social behavior among African-Americans, the media have fostered a distorted and pernicious public perception of African-Americans.”

    [url]http://www.yale.edu/ypq/articles/oct99/oct99b.html[/url]

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