The President's Report Card...continued￼￼￼
Together, the expansion of the state Children’s Health Insurance Act in 2009 and the signature Affordable Care Act of 2010 extended medical coverage to 7 million African Americans, Shelton notes. Inadequate access to health care is one cause — but not the only one — of racial disparities in serious diseases and deaths from them.
Flexing its enforcement powers under the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department has rejected state laws requiring voters in Texas and South Carolina to show ID at the polls, although the department has cleared similar laws in Virginia and New Hampshire. The Civil Rights Division has been investigating another that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently set aside for further review.
HE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT is backing affirmative action in admis- sions at the University of Texas in a constitutional challenge pending before the Supreme Court. Last December, the Justice Department and Education Department issued guidance to schools and colleges on how to promote diversity under the
Supreme Court’s 2003 decision regarding the University of Michigan Law School.
“They came out very strongly in terms of the steps that colleges and universities should take in implementing the court’s decision,” Wilcher says of the two departments. “They didn’t have to come out as strongly as they did, and I am pleased with the positions that they have taken.”
For the first time in two decades, the EEOC updated its guid- ance to employers on criminal background checks on job applicants, warning that those with records can be rejected only if their past offenses are relevant to work duties and “consistent with business necessity.” Mass incarceration has meant many Black ex-offenders cannot find a job and, if unable to make a living in business for themselves, land back in prison.
The administration has strengthened civil rights enforcement by increasing staff at key agencies. For example, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, the Labor Department agency that monitors affirmative action in a quarter of the civilian workforce, has the equivalent of 755 full-time employees, up from 596 when Obama took office. The current level approaches the 815 staffers that Wilcher oversaw as the agency’s director during the Clinton administration.
EEOC personnel went from 2,192 in 2009 to 2,354 this year. At the Justice Department, the Civil Rights Division added 100 employees last year, but the number of personnel currently is 717, about the same as in 2009.
Civil rights advocates praise the Obama appointees who lead the agencies that enforce anti-discrimination laws. Many of those appointees have long histories working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Women’s Law Center or similar organizations.
"I know these people. Their commitment to civil rights goes back decades and is well-demonstrated,” Wilcher says. So without making a public flourish, Obama has run an administration that has done the unglamorous work of enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws, a thrust particularly important in the job market during this period of high unemployment. The president outlined his mindset and his administration’s approach to racial inequality in an interview published in Parade magazine, the Sunday newspaper supplement, just before the Democratic National Convention renominated him in September.
Asked “So, how has being Black affected your ability to govern?,” Obama replied in part: “By virtue of being African- American, I’m attuned to how throughout this country’s history there have been times when folks have been locked out of opportunity, and because of the hard work of people of all races, slowly the doors opened to more and more people. Equal opportunity doesn’t just happen on its own; it happens because we’re vigilant about it.”
Henderson does have two criticisms of Obama’s civil rights record. Neither has to do with enforcement. Henderson says one is “the failure to really reinvigorate and rescue our housing industry;” the other is failure to nominate more federal judges.
United for a Fair Economy, an advocacy group based in Boston, estimates that African Americans suffered their largest loss of wealth in history during the home foreclosure crisis, in part because unscrupulous lenders targeted Blacks and Latinos in marketing subprime mortgages. Henderson says Obama, based on unwise advice from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and economic adviser Larry Summers, did not push hard for legislation to authorize bankruptcy judges to modify home mortgages. His administration also returned unspent $300 billion that Congress had allocated to ease mortgage burdens.
The Justice Department, however, has gone after big banks that discriminated against African American and Hispanic borrowers by steering them into subprime mortgages, which have higher fees and interest rates. In the last year, the Civil Rights Division has negotiated settlements with Bank of America ($335 million), Wells Fargo & Co. ($175 million) and SunTrust Mortgage ($21 million). The Bank of America settlement stands as the largest ever for alleged violations of residential fair lending practices.
On judgeships, Obama has done little to rebalance a federal bench dominated by conservative Republican appointees, many hostile to affirmative action.
“He ends his first term with the unenviable record of being the very first president in recent memory who ends with more vacancies than he began with,” Henderson says. “The judicial vacancy crisis is the sleeper civil rights issue of the 2012 election. I think that Obama deserves some criticism for his failure, and it puts a great burden on his second term, assuming he gets one.”
Looking back on the first term, leading African American advocates of civil rights attach more significance to what administration officials have done than on what Obama has or has not said. “I think they’ve done an extraordinary job,” Shelton says in the first words of his lengthy assessment of Obama I.
Kenneth J. Cooper is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist based in Boston.
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