“Yes, race still colors our debates,” said President Barack Obama during his keynote speech at the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit yesterday. It is also the case, he said, that the country is still wracked by political division and poverty, and that some government programs have fallen short of their goals; nonetheless, 50 years after Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, “we have proved that great progress is possible.” And the president ended his speech by promising, like LBJ before him, to use the power of his office to pursue further progress.
The Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public accommodations and included a provision against unequal application of voter registration rules; the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson signed the next year, reinforced voting rights by establishing federal oversight of state election rules and outlawing literacy tests, among other things. Both sought to guarantee equal access to political participation for African-Americans (and other racial minorities). In his remarks introducing the president, John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement who now represents Georgia in the United States House of Representatives, observed that the laws had thereby enabled the elections of Southern Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as well as Obama, the country’s first African-American president. Clinton made that point too, during his keynote address on Wednesday. The election of a black president, however, was a milestone that many doubted was possible right up until the day America voted him in.
As president, Obama has not gone out of his way to lead a national discussion about the legacy of racial injustice in America, or about the racism that still exists, although his administration has occasionally taken up issues that disproportionately affect African-Americans and Hispanics, as in the Department of Justice’s efforts against state-level efforts to restrict voting rights (including Texas’s Voter ID law). Yesterday’s speech was in line with that approach. The comment quoted above was about as close as Obama has ever come, at least in public, to addressing an argument that many of his supporters have made—that the political opposition to his domestic agenda is so ferocious that it must be driven by racism, at least in part.
Overall, Obama came across as less contentious than Clinton, for example, who gave a blistering take on recent Republican efforts to shake off the restrictions of the Voting Rights Act while simultaneously pursuing state-level restrictions on voting itself: “We all know what that’s about.” Obama’s polite words about Johnson’s legacy, however, conveyed a couple of pointed arguments.