Study: Obama Pays Less Attention to Race than Any Democratic President in the Last 50 Years

What's Going On


by Dr. Boyce Watkins

Research at The University of Pennsylvania says that the nation’s first bi-racial president has made among the fewest references to race in American history.  According to a study by Daniel Q. Gillion, an assistant professor of Political Science at The University of Pennsylvania, President Barack Obama has been the least racially-responsive Democratic President since 1961. Professor Gillion measured references to race with executive orders and statements on race during public speeches.

George Curry, writing on the matter at, summarizes the study’s results in an interesting way.  According to Curry:

That means he has paid less attention to race than John F. Kennedy, a liberal former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and three White Southerners who grew up under segregation – Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

Curry writes on Obama’s racial preferences in the context of a recent speech by White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, who insists that the president is not afraid to mention race in spite of substantial evidence to the contrary.   Jarrett made her remarks during a meeting with six journalists who came to visit her.

“If you look at the president’s record in the first four years, if you look at his major domestic policy accomplishments, they disproportionately do benefit the African-American community,” she said.

Jarrett continued, “If you look at the Affordable Care Act – roughly 9 million African Americans uninsured will have health insurance today – if you look at the president’s Recovery Act and subsequent budgets … If you went through the menu of tax incentives and unemployment that disproportionately benefit the African-American community, time and time again – I think unemployment insurance has been extended like nine times –every single time we had to fight the Republicans to get that done.”

I love what Valerie Jarrett is trying to say, because it perfectly explains much of the race strategy of the Obama Administration. This, my friends, is what could be called a racialized version of Trickle Down Economics.  It is a strategy which states that if we help everyone (starting with those at the top), then it’s going to filter down to the rest of us (meaning black folks).  The idea of targeting urban or black communities is taken off the table, despite the fact that we live in a nation that spent 400 years engaging in targeted strategies designed to create racial division.  As a response, we are fed the economic leftovers of an allegedly post-racial society that believes that racial inequality disappears when you simply decide not to be racist anymore.

The problem with this policy is that it didn’t work under President Ronald Reagan, and it’s not working now.  As NAACP President Ben Jealous (perhaps reluctantly) admitted, African Americans are far worse off under President Obama than even President Bush, and the racial economic gap continues to widen.  Since the recession began in 2008, Wall Street has seen a robust recovery, white Americans have seen improvements in their unemployment rate, and African American economic progress remains in the toilet.  In fact, when the recession is over, our unemployment rates will still be higher than the ones white people are complaining about right now.  There are few greater signs of inequality than the fact that white people are allowed to complain about 7% unemployment, yet black people (i.e. myself) can be called traitors for respectfully mentioning 14%.  Instead, we are expected to believe that black people don’t have jobs because they are a pack of lazy, uneducated negroes looking for a handout (which is an insult to many educated people who can’t find adequate work in this economy).

Now, if one were to buy into the notion that, according to Jarrett, the Obama Administration is breaking its back to help black people, then this leads us to a serious paradox.  The paradox is that if they are doing all they can to help the black community, and the community continues to be worse off, then the reason for the continued decline must be because there is something wrong with black people (yet another artifact of white supremacy, which tells us that whites are so much harder working than we are).  Hence, the administration being run by America’s first bi-racial president is leaning on white supremacy to excuse itself from working for black constituents as hard as it works for gay people and illegal immigrants.

Valerie Jarrett is a senior adviser and a smart woman, but let me give her some quick advice.

First, start telling the truth (a difficult task for any politician, I know).   The reality is that the Obama Administration knows that it can put the African American community on the back burner largely because some of us have such low political self-esteem that we are just happy to see a president with black skin.   Unlike other groups who fought for their gains from Obama, African Americans have rarely expressed the political will to make things happen for their children and their communities.  Valerie knows she can get away with style and no substance when it comes to King Obama.  Voting for Barack is not enough, we must also sacrifice our Democratic voice, which is something that I am NOT willing to do.

While there are those who argue that we expect more from Obama than past presidents, the fact is that we gave him more support than past presidents.  What’s most unfortunate, however, is that (by virtue of this study), we are now in the remarkable position of giving extraordinary support while begging for ordinary responses.   Some would say that it’s hard to argue that the Obama presidency was a good investment for black America:  The Obama family wins, and millions of black people lose.  I beg anyone to prove otherwise.

Second, stop inviting the same ineffective people to the White House to discuss black economic policy with the president.  The last I checked, Al Sharpton never studied economics and has rarely, if ever, created a job.  So, the logical way to explain your decision to pass over economic experts in order to speak with a preacher is that you would rather have meetings with black people who refuse to ask you the hard questions.   Al Sharpton is a strong man, but somehow you’ve weakened (or intimidated) him, and the rest of the black community is suffering because of it. I don’t know what happened to Rev. Sharpton, but I truly feel sorry for him.

Third, stop presuming that Obama’s success is the same as the success of the black community.  Yes, most of us want to support the president’s battles against the Republicans (I refuse to discuss Democratic ineptitude with Republicans until they offer better solutions), but most of us love our children more than we love your administration. This means that as the president fights for gay people and immigrants, we should fully expect that he is going to use his power to help black people find jobs, manage violence and confront the devastating impact of the prison industrial complex.  We are attacking these matters ourselves, but we can’t impact institutionalized racism the way President Obama can by picking up his pen and signing executive orders.

Valerie, I’m happy for Barack, really I am. But while the world stands cheering for Obama, the black community is dying a slow death.  This death is not due to some psychological malfunction we’re cursed with at birth, but due to the fact that some of our leaders (elected and otherwise) have fallen asleep at the wheel when it comes to unearthing the lasting impact of systematic racism.   In many cases, the term, “personal responsibility” is used to wag a finger at the black community.  But the other side of the coin is that responsibility rises to the top, and although President Obama can’t solve all of the problems of the black community, he certainly has an obligation to try.

Talk is always cheap, which is why politicians do so much of it.  It’s time to put your money where your mouth is.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and author of the book, “Black American Money.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.


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  1. Yeah … he’s got all them racist Republicans and their Dem friends paying so much attention to it for him, he doesn’t need to. What would be the point, especially since they have the same answers for race that they’ve had since the 1500s.

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