In our readings of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, we witnessed many of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s criticisms of Obama. She offered a perspective that I personally have not seen much of in mainstream media: the critical view that Obama did not accomplish enough for black Americans. I had been accustomed to hearing conservative criticism of Obama saying he has gone too far socially, and liberal praises of his efforts for American equality, but this more left point of view was less familiar to me. She mentioned that he was not explicit enough in addressing the institutional racism that plagues black Americans and she labels him as more of a “interested observer” of such issues. Rightfully so in many respects (I did not know it took Obama more than a month to speak on Trayvon Martin after his death); however, after reading “The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform” in the Harvard Law Review, I believe President Obama is due more respect. Taylor may have been too critical.
Taylor remarks that Obama “was reluctant to engage with and directly address…racial discrimination” and that he “straddles the fence on issues important to African Americans.” In stark contrast, Obama repeatedly discusses in “The President’s Role” how his administration acknowledged and combatted systemic issues of the justice system that targeted black males and lead to their overrepresentation in our jails and courts. His language is unambiguous as he calls out “mass incarceration”, “racial profiling”, and the “pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.” Additionally, Obama was successful in passing legislation that reduced the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine policing which previously “resulted in excessive…punishments that fell disproportionately on defendants of color.” He also encouraged practices, like Smart on Crime, that reduced the use of mandatory minimums. These specific aspects of our criminal justice system (the crack and powder cocaine disparity and mandatory minimums) were crucial in worsening the mass policing and incarceration of black Americans, as noted in other readings and the documentary, 13th (check out my last blog post). There is no mention of such notable contributions in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.
I do not think Taylor properly represented Obama’s accomplishments in improving criminal justice and fighting discriminatory practices. Of course Obama in his own words, like anyone else would, painted a wholesome picture of himself. But that does not detract from the fact that his administration vocally targeted systemic issues that hurt people of color. And still, I do believe that Taylor is entirely reasonable in some regards. I understand her view that Obama was too passive and hesitant when it came to speaking on cases of police brutality against blacks. And perhaps it would have been more fulfilling to see him be openly vindictive towards cops and supportive of protests, but as she said, Obama “could not lead a social movement against police brutality as the president.” The objective truth about Obama’s impact on addressing “issues important to African Americans” is somewhere in the middle of these reviews: we should weigh the valid points of all perspectives when forming our understanding of Obama’s, and for that matter anyone’s, actions.