'Race and the Obama Administration' explores substance, symbols and promises kept

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | July 16, 2019

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Political science professor Andra Gillespie examines outcomes and perceptions of the Obama presidency through prisms of race and politics in her new book, “Race and the Obama Administration.”

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There is little question the election of President Barack Obama was a landmark moment in American politics, and for black Americans, a milestone of deep, symbolic importance.

But when reviewing the arc of his presidential administration, what was achieved? Were there substantive gains beyond the symbolism? And did African Americans — and other ethnic and racial minorities — see real benefits in their lives under the nation’s first black president?

Those are issues Emory political scientist Andra Gillespie tackles head-on in her new book, “Race And The Obama Administration: Substance, Symbols and Hope” (Manchester University Press, 2019), a data-driven examination of the outcomes — and perceptions — of the Obama presidency as seen through prisms of race and politics.

While some critics have charged that America’s first black president did little to alter the impact of racial inequality, Gillespie employs quantitative and qualitative analyses to reveal a legacy that is more complex and nuanced. 

Over the course of the Obama administration, the quality of black life improved by some metrics (high school graduation rates, hate crimes and life expectancy), faltered in some areas (home ownerships, college graduation rates, loans to black-owned businesses) and remained unchanged in other dimensions, says Gillespie, an associate professor of political science and director of Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference.

But what was striking, she notes, is the stubborn persistence of the obstacles that make it difficult to narrow inequality gaps. 

For instance, hate crimes fell in the U.S. through the Obama years, but black citizens were still more likely than any racial or ethnic group to be the victims of those crimes. While unemployment levels dropped for all groups, African Americans were still nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as whites. And though the number of uninsured black and Latino/Latina citizens dropped, people of color were still less likely to have health insurance. 

“While it is not true that nothing improved materially for blacks during the Obama administration, one can make a credible case that there was not enough progress on some key measures,” Gillespie says.

“The larger question is who is to blame for these sobering statistics?” she adds. “And perhaps most important, do blacks blame Obama for the lack of material progress?” 

Race and representation

The genesis of Gillespie’s exploration arose from ongoing scholarship in deracialization and racial transcendency in American politics, topics she examines in her earlier book, “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America.”

Deracialization describes how a candidate of color may de-emphasize issues of race in favor of promoting issues with broader appeal, boosting the ability of minority candidates to appeal to voters beyond their own racial and ethnic communities, Gillespie explains. 

“The idea that politicians of color might try to appeal to a transcendent group of constituents is not a new concept — we’ve seen that you can use it to get elected,” she says.

“But it raises the question of whether deracialized candidates make implicit bargains with their constituents to not talk about race with the hope that once in office, they will act on behalf of minority interests.”

Gillespie knew she wanted to delve more deeply into deracialization, as both a campaign strategy and governing style. “And who better to focus on than the first black president of the United States, who used the strategy to get elected?” she says.

“We’ve seen deracialization widely used as a campaign tool for nearly two generations now and with it have come all kinds of expectations,” she explains. “I think the new question, which I start to grapple with in this book, is what does deracialization look like in the age of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump?” 

In the wake of Obama winning his first presidential race, “some scholars and pundits were asserting we were on the precipice of a post-racial America, where race would be less salient in life,” Gillespie says.

“What we now know is that race has become even more salient in American life and public discourse,” she adds. “This is an era where racial differences are amplified, where communities of color are demanding explicit action, not symbolism.”

Promises made, promises kept

Despite his deracialized campaign strategies, was there a perception that President Obama made campaign promises explicitly targeting black voters?

By Gillespie’s calculations, yes. From vigorously pursuing hate crimes and civil rights abuses to creating a White House Office on Urban Policy, Obama kept about 55 percent of his promises that offered a particular appeal to African Americans — a number comparable to the proportion of promises that appealed to Latino voters (57.7 percent) and women (56.5 percent), she notes.

And he also was successful in keeping campaign promises to other constituencies, including more than 60 percent of promises affecting U.S. veterans and Native Americans and more than 70 percent of promises impacting the LGBTQ community.

Compared with the preceding Clinton and Bush administrations, Obama issued more executive orders addressing issues of concern to both African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities. He also nominated — and maintained — a more ethnically diverse group of Cabinet-level candidates and senior-level staff.

By other measures, Gillespie finds fluctuating support. For example, federal appropriations for historically black colleges and universities ebbed and flowed and small business loans to black-owned firms rose and fell as well. 

At times Obama’s actions and policies were substantive, at times more symbolic. But when it came to the perceptions of black voters, both deeply mattered, Gillespie asserts.

Public opinion, black attitudes 

Employing qualitative and quantitative analyses, Gillespie found that while black voters remained largely supportive of Obama — in general, he met or exceeded expectations with respect to racial issues — they also could be critical of him. 

“I really do want to challenge the idea that African Americans are this monolithic voting bloc, incapable of critiquing even leaders whom they love,” she says.

That support rose not from blind loyalty, but rather from a belief that he was “the best imperfect option they had,” according to Gillespie.

Throughout his administration, divided government control and partisan polarization would hamper efforts to reduce racial inequalities. Looking back, she suggests that the Obama presidency might best be viewed as one leg in an ongoing relay race.

“Yes, there are reasons to be dissatisfied with the glacial pace of reducing racial inequality in America,” Gillespie says. “And while he could have done more from a policy standpoint, it was unrealistic to expect him — as head of one-third of the American government — to make all the changes he sought and succeed in every initiative he undertook.”

“The president can’t do everything – especially if you’ve got a legislative branch that’s not cooperating,” she says. “You can’t reverse 400 years of slavery and codified discrimination in eight years.”