The President's Report Card...continued

Obama's critics make the mistake of supposing he should act as the chief advocate or community organizer-in-chief.

The civil-rights advocates cite laws that Obama signed early on to enforce fair pay for women, broaden federal jurisdiction over hate crimes and reduce the disparity between prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine possession. A final monetary settlement was negotiated and secured for Black farmers who had received discriminatory treatment in federal agricultural programs.

Other new laws boosted Pell Grants for less prosperous students to attend college and expanded health coverage for children, an expansion that was extended to adults under the health care reform law.

Since the election in 2010 of a Republican-controlled House reflexively opposed to Obama’s legislative initiatives, the administration has relied more on executive and regulatory powers to make headway on civil rights.

The Justice Department has carefully scrutinized state voter ID laws and, as has the Education Department, backed affirmative action in college admissions. The independent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, led by Obama appointees, has cautioned employers to limit the consideration of criminal records in hiring decisions.

Despite the federal budget crunch, the Obama administration has managed to increase the personnel available to enforce civil rights. The Labor Department agency that monitors federal contractors has 27 percent more staff than it did when Obama took office in 2009. The EEOC has seen a 7 percent increase. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department got a bump in employees in 2011, although their number has since then fallen back to the pre-Obama level.

"As they say, put your money where your mouth is," Wilcher says. "Contrary to some assertions, I think this administration has done more than what one would expect, given the politics of equal opportunity, particularly in a conservative environment, and given the budget." The first piece of legislation that Obama signed into law was a civil rights law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which reversed a Supreme Court decision and extended the period for filing lawsuits to enforce equal pay for equal work. The law sprang from a case involving a woman but applies to race and other unlawful discrimination. African Americans have an outsized interest in women receiving equal pay because of the preponderance of Black children living in female-headed households.

Signed the same year, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act gave federal prosecutors broader and greater authority to pursue punishment of perpetrators of hate crimes, including those local law enforcement does not address. Previously, the feds could get involved only if the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity, like voting or going to school. The law is named for Shepard, who was gay, and Byrd, an African American, both killed in horrendous attacks in 1998.

"We had been working on this bill for 14 years, since (Bill) Clinton came to office," Henderson says. "It took 14 years later before Obama could sign that into law." It was an even longer legislative haul to enact the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine from100 to 1 down to 18 to 1. Federal courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission had moved in that direction before Congress went along. Since the mid-1990s, civil rights advocates and members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) had pushed for elimination of the disparity, which overwhelmingly fell on African American offenders. Civil-rights advocates also worked to get justice for Black farmers. The Agriculture Department negotiated a final settlement to the Pigford lawsuit from the Clinton era on dis- crimination in lending and other assistance to Black farmers. Congress approved the $1.2 billion payout in 2010. "Black farmers were a big issue for us," Shelton says.

Under the Constitution, education and health care are not civil rights, but racial disparities in both afflict African Americans. In 2009, Obama signed a law that eliminated banks as middle men in making federal college loans, for which the private lenders charged administrative fees but assumed little risk because of government guarantees.

"What the Obama administration did was went in and restructured that portion of student loans, brought it in-house instead of contracting it out, reduced the administrative fees, assigned the savings from the administration fees to Pell grants, and we saw one of the biggest increases in Pell grants in American history," Shelton explains.


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