The Impact of the Obama Presidency on Civil Rights Enforcement in the United States

The Impact of the Obama Presidency on Civil Rights Enforcement in the United States

Indiana Law Journal
Volume 87: Issue 1 (Spring 2012)
Symposium: “Labor and Employment Under the Obama Administration: A Time for Hope and Change?”

Joel Wm. Friedman, Jack M. Gordon Professor of Law
Tulane University Law School

Panel 6: Employment Law: Antidiscrimination Law Under a Black President in a “Post-Racial” America?

On Friday, August 4, 1961, police officers in Shreveport, Louisiana, arrested four African American freedom riders after the two men and two women refused to accede to the officers’ orders to exit the whites-only waiting room at the Continental Trailways bus terminal. Four thousand miles away, in the delivery room at Kapi’olani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, Stanley Ann Dunham, a Kansas-born American anthropologist whose family had moved to the island state twenty years earlier, gave birth to the only child that she would have with her first husband, Barack Obama Sr., an ethnic Luo who had come to Hawaii from the Nyanza Province in southwest Kenya to pursue his education at the University of Hawaii. Just over forty-seven years later, on November 4, 2008, their son, Barak Obama II, a mixed-race man who identifies as black, was elected the 44th president of the United States.

The election of the nation’s first African American president was hailed as an event of historic importance. Many heralded Obama’s victory as signaling the dismantling of “the last racial barrier in American politics.” Analogies were quickly and frequently drawn to the historic moment when Jackie Robinson became the first African American player in Major League Baseball. This superficially obvious comparison, however, diminished the causal significance of Obama’s election. When Jackie Robinson left the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues on October 23, 1945, to sign a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then made his debut on a major league diamond at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, he breached the unofficial, but rigidly enforced exclusionary “color line” in professional baseball. But this momentous event was the product of a courageous and visionary decision by one man—Branch Rick[e]y, the part-owner, president, and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Obama’s election triumph, on the other hand, was the result of millions of individual determinations to vote for an African American candidate for the nation’s highest office.

Beyond the unique historical aspect of Obama’s election triumph, the results of the 2008 presidential election were interpreted by many as marking the onset of a new era of American “postracialism.” For example, much was made of the fact  that in Virginia, home of the Confederacy’s capital city, Obama amassed more votes than his Caucasian opponent. Many analysts concluded that the voters’ comparative assessments of each candidate’s ability to deal with the nation’s economic woes, and not his racial classification, were a crucial determinant in their decisions in the voting booth. They pointed to the fact that Obama’s 8.5 million vote margin of victory was, in part, the result of his receipt of 40% of the votes cast by white men, a higher share than had been garnered by any of the five previous (white) Democratic presidential nominees…

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