The Compact for Racial Justice Forum held a conference call April 28 with leaders of national social justice groups who discussed the highs and lows of President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office. The forum, directed by the Applied Research Center, was part of a series of national conference calls about race and the economy, jobs, health care, immigration and civil rights.
The following speakers were on the call.
– Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity.
– Tarso Luis Ramos, director of research with Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank devoted to supporting movements that are building a more just and inclusive democratic society based on human rights.
– Deepa Iyer, executive director with South Asian Americans Leading Together, a national group that advocates around issues affecting South Asian communities through the use of a social justice framework.
– Tammy Johnson, director of strategic partnerships with the Applied Research Center was the moderator.
Johnson began stating the purpose of the discussion – to give an overall assessment of racial equity under the current Obama administration and his first 100 days in the White House.
Johnson asked, “Did Obama push justice for all, or for some? Was justice denied? Or is it still to early to tell?”
Iyer said there were many high points during the first 100 days of the Obama administration including the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health coverage to millions of children nationwide. Iyer highlighted Obama’s many cabinet appointments, which now reflect much needed diversity in Washington.
“The Obama administration is also reaching out to many nations across the planet including those in the Muslim world,” said Iyer. This is a step in the right direction, she said.
Ramos mentioned the specific appointment of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis as extremely significant. “And the order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center is a big shift in foreign policy,” he added.
“From day one,” said Blackwell, “Obama’s inauguration was extraordinary and we saw that the president is a hard worker from the beginning.” Blackwell notes the accessibility of White House officials these days is exceptional.
“Obama’s stimulus and recovery package is directly aimed at helping communities of color and all working people which will really make a huge impact,” said Blackwell. “And this is pretty amazing in the first 100 days,” she added.
Johnson said the appointment of Eric Holder as the U.S. attorney general provides hope for good things to come from the Department of Justice.
After discussing the high points, the speakers were asked to reflect on the challenges facing the Obama administration.
“It’s clear that people have to be engaged and be active if we want to continue to see changes,” said Blackwell. “We need to speak up in a united way and communities of color must be organized,” she added.
Ramos pointed out, “The bank bailout was a low, especially given the foreclosure crisis.”
Iyer said issues surrounding national security are still a big concern, especially for Muslims in the U.S. who continue to be targeted.
Johnson shifted the discussion and asked how the economic crisis is affecting communities of color in the last 100 days.
“One-hundred days is a short period in any presidency,” said Blackwell. “Obama’s budget is a huge advantage for low-income people when it comes to infrastructure, education, health care and jobs creation,” she said. “Obama’s budget overall is pretty amazing.”
Blackwell added, “For the first time we have a president that wants to be pushed, and we have to ensure that money is guaranteed for long-lasting job programs in our communities.”
Ramos agreed, “We need to continue to hold the Obama administration accountable and support broad diverse coalitions on important issues.” At the same time, Ramos added, “We need to take our opposition seriously because they are banking on Obama to fail.”
However, said Ramos, “What we also need is an immediate moratorium on foreclosures.”
Ramos noted that the Employee Free Choice Act should be signed into law in the next period, “so workers can better organize unions.” And federal money should be allocated toward communities of color and for workers, not the banks, he said.
Iyer added, “It’s incumbent on us to insert racial equity issues when it comes to the economic crisis because there is an opening today like never before.”
Unemployment among African Americans is at 30 percent, said Blackwell. “We have to help provide geographical targets to assist people in need in such places like Detroit and St. Louis,” said Blackwell. There needs to be incentive to target communities hit worst and first, she said.
Ramos continued, “The economic crisis is front and center, and we cannot achieve racial justice without economic justice in order to provide relief to the most economically marginalized in this country.” Obama’s efforts must incorporate an economy that will unite working-class communities nationwide, he said. Latinos, immigrants, Blacks, poor Asians, Native Americans and whites should all be considered, said Ramos.
Ramos said poor urban youth should have job-training programs, which should focus on steady career building and offer good paying union jobs.
Local groups need to know how to benefit from the national stimulus package, said the speakers. In order to build a fully inclusive society, poor communities of color need to be targeted and not left behind. The U.S. will not thrive if these communities are not equally served, they said.
“For example, passing immigration reform could revitalize our economy,” said Iyer. She added that many in the immigrant rights community welcome Obama’s efforts to pass reform on this particular issue in the near future. Iyer warned that the Obama administration needs to investigate, review or possibly terminate altogether how local law enforcement agencies continue to racially profile undocumented workers.
Iyer asked, “Can we get behind an immigration bill that has border enforcement with legalization?” She added, “The danger is the comprehensive part. We’re not going to get everything we want. We’ll have to see the outcome, but it may depend on how many people come out on this issue,” she said.
There is an opening to get the African American community to support immigration reform, said Blackwell. “This is an area where people are looking for a consensus to stand together on,” she said.
Issues regarding foreign policy under the Obama administration are something each speaker said should be carefully analyzed. For example the issue surrounding Pakistan and the continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a growing concern, they said. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also alarming, they charged.
“The U.S. boycott of the United Nations conference against racism was a step backward for the Obama administration,” said Ramos.
“It’s time to think big and bold but also strategic in how we frame theses discussions,” said Ramos.
Overall Blackwell was pleased with the Obama administration thus far. “It’s up to us to make the change we need – to be organized and studious. We need to give thanks when thanks is deserved and be critical when it’s time to be critical,” she said.
For Iyer, Obama’s overall performance is definitely above average.
Ramos said there is an unprecedented access to the Obama administration, and we need to take full advantage of this process. He gives the Obama’s first 100 days a B+, because there is always room for improvement, he said.