Barack Obama, African-American Legacies, and American Public Policies

Nancy Pelosi holds up newly-signed Health Care Bill. (AP photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Nancy Pelosi holds up newly-signed Health Care Bill. (AP photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta)

While campaigning for the presidency of the United States of America, Barack Obama was often asked why he felt he was qualified for the job and he would answer that, according to supporters and colleagues, he had a gift for building effective coalitions capable of accomplishing difficult tasks. The value of such a talent was proven March 21, 2010, when the House of Representative passed the then Health Care Bill with a vote of 219-212, and again on March 23, when Obama signed the bill into law.

Even before the bill was passed, opponents of it had already started to prepare strategies to challenge its constitutionality, claiming it unlawfully imposes obligations upon both states and individuals which the government has no such right to impose. After its passage, Republicans vowed to seek its repeal and attorney generals in fourteen states filed suit against the federal government to overturn the historic health care overhaul. Even so, on March 25, Congress completed a set of addendums to Health Care Bill and paved the way for 32 million Americans who previously lacked adequate healthcare coverage to obtain it.

Change and Racism

Noting criticism of specific provisions or the lack of specific provisions from both Republicans and Democrats, Obama acknowledged the following after the first vote:

“This legislation will not fix everything that ails our healthcare system, but it moves us decisively in the right direction. This is what change looks like…

“Tonight we answered the call of history as so many before us. We did not fear our future. We shaped it.”

More than a few commentators -such as Stephen L. Goldstein of the Sun Sentinel and Chicago radio host Ray Hanania-have addressed the appearance that much of the reported resistance to healthcare reform-via “Tea Parties,” violent demonstrations on Capitol Hill grounds, and threats against members of Congress– likely have more to do with expressions of racism directed at Barack Obama than genuine disapproval of the health care reform. Julianne Malveaux, the president of Bennett College for Women, made this observation:

“It occurs to me that the very Tea Party protestors who so strongly protested the passage of health reform might be prime beneficiaries of it… They aren’t so much against health reform as they are against folks they chose to describe in words Congressman Clyburn says he had not heard since the ‘60s. Their language reveals the origins and intent of the Tea Party movement. It also suggests that these folks need a health care intervention.”


Dr. Julianne Malveaux (photo courtesy of PBS)

President Malveaux could be speaking literally or satirically when she suggests “a health care intervention” for those suffering from displaced racism. Either way, her statements help illustrate a historical legacy of public policies rooted in, or influenced by, African-American social and political advocacy, and which have gone on to serve the larger democracy embodied by American people in general.

A Gift of Legacies Still Intact

One of the first such public policies was implementation of the country’s public school system. Black congressmen who held office during Civil War Reconstruction (1865-1877) like Georgia’s Jefferson Franklin Long, were among the strongest champions for a public school system that has since served generations of children and adults from different racial backgrounds. That system –as problem-ridden as it may be in 2010–is one of the primary reasons the United States has been able to maintain a strong middle class to bridge the divide between the wealthy and the impoverished. Between those Blacks who had long been denied education because of their former status as slaves, various missionary societies, and the Freedman’s Bureau, more than 3,000 schools were established in the American South during Reconstruction.

Another example is one that was established during the 1930s Scottsboro Trial, when nine Black youth were falsely accused of raping two young White women and spent more than a decade in prison before gaining release. As a result of their ordeal, the Supreme Court ruled that any accused individual standing trial not only had the right to counsel, but the right have counsel present during court proceedings. While this is taken for granted as common sense in 2010, it was a different story in 1931. The ruling, obviously, does not end with African Americans but extends to all Americans.

Although the much-referenced Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s were established after long decades of public protests, courtroom appeals, and volumes of published works by African Americans, the legislative acts themselves were passed as much as for the United States as a whole than simply one segment of its population. President John F. Kennedy put it this way when outlining the 1964 Civil Rights Bill: “I therefore ask every Member of Congress to set aside sectional and political ties, and to look at this issue from the viewpoint of the Nation.” A little later, in preparing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote: “Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”

Please click to read part 2:    Barack Obama Extends Historical Legacy “Astride the Promise of Change”

by Aberjhani

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