Monday, October 18, 2010

Obama’s Unkept Promise to Alabama’s Blacks

Ah, race.

What would we do for a political leitmotif in Alabama without it?

The election of Barack Obama was guaranteed to have far reaching, and long lasting implications for Alabama politics. The first election of an African-American President could not be anything other than a paradigm-shifting event. On the one hand, Obama’s presence on the ballot seems to have brought out the worst in white Alabama. Exit polls indicated that Obama got 10% of the white vote in Alabama. This polling data is strongly corroborated by a near-perfect correlation between black population percentage and Obama’s county-level vote totals:

Of course, Obama’s election has had some beneficial effects, many of which will not be felt for generations. Irreversible damage has been done to the belief of black children that there are stations in life off-limits to them because of their race. That will have an impact in the law schools, medical schools, and corporate boardrooms more quickly than it will in the Governor’s Mansion. There is also no denial of the impact on black voter registration and turnout. In the 2008 Alabama Presidential Primary, 83.9% black Macon County outvoted 98.0% white DeKalb County - despite the fact that Macon only has 31.9% of DeKalb’s population.

What follows I write with some trepidation, mindful that the blood that courses through my veins is pure Anglo-Saxon, save for distaff branches of Scots and German. But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, whatever the election of Barack Obama means to black Alabamians in terms of pride, symbolism, and civic engagement, from a policy and administrative perspective his administration has been a large disappointment.

Obama has taken his share of grief from the national black community over national policy issues such as the failure to attain a public option or single payer health care component in the “reform” legislation. Others have complained of his progress in advancing outstanding civil rights issues, and some even criticized Michelle Obama for not working a black designer into her dress selection on Inauguration Day. The complaint of Velma Hart, who told Obama she was “exhausted of defending you,” has become something of a symbol for such black discontent. While this criticism is noteworthy, and not without merit, and it has been noted that his shortfalls are disproportionately borne by African-Americans, I am more concerned here with Obama’s impact on areas unique to Alabama. Of necessity, those pertain more to matters of patronage and appointment than to policy. On these matters, Obama’s record varies from questionable to terrible.

Obama’s first appointment to the Federal bench is a little troubling. The retirement of longtime U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon in Birmingham, the first black judge in the Northern District of Alabama, brought an end to a pioneering phase of civil rights here. Clemon was noted for refusing to kowtow to the Government, and he single-handedly brought the first political persecution of Don Siegelman to a halt by tossing out the charges as frivolous. Since the Federal bench in Alabama is now dominated by appointees from the Reagan-Bush-Bush years, there was widespread hope that Clemon would be replaced by someone who would bring clear balance to the Court. Instead, following the suggestion of then-confidante Artur Davis, the President appointed Abdul Kallon. Like Obama, Kallon has a colorful biography. A native of Sierra Leone, Kallon attended Dartmouth (by an exponential factor, the most conservative and Republican Ivy League school), and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He clerked for Clemon, who appeared with him before the Senate urging his confirmation.

My concern with Kallon comes from his career choice. Kallon worked in business-side employment law at the firm today known as Bradley, Arant, Boult and Cummings. In short, he defended corporations against attempts by victims of discrimination to obtain compensation allowed by law. While I understand Kallon was not personally involved in that case, it was the employment law department at Bradley, Arant that defended Goodyear in the famous Lilly Ledbetter case. This is not where we should be looking for judges to be appointed by Democrats. While I don’t begrudge any person of color working where they choose, and holding what opinions they pick; it’s one thing to be a corporate lawyer, and another to serve as a representative of progressive and minority interests. Our Federal legal system tacitly rests on a presumption that Democratic presidents will appoint judges who tack progressively, Republicans will appoint conservative judges, the confirmation process will weed out the extremes; and if we’re lucky, the law winds up somewhere in the middle. If a Democrat makes center-right appointments to lifetime positions, we’re in for a long century. Not since Eisenhower appointed Frank Johnson has a Republican president put a moderately progressive judge on the Alabama bench. No pun intended, I do not want to prematurely judge Kallon. Perhaps, like Johnson, or Chief Justice Earl Warren, he will emerge as more progressive than his record suggests. But it remains troubling that Obama, with a safely Democratic Senate, did not make a more certain progressive black choice to fill Clemon’s shoes. It’s not like there aren’t clearly progressive black lawyers in North Alabama; I could have named a dozen within a minute whose qualifications were up to the standards of the Federal bench.

Obama moved with alacrity to replace GOP political puppet Alice Martin in the post of U.S. Attorney for the Northern District. However, as I have noted elsewhere, his inexplicable, and inexcusable failure to replace Republihack Leura Canary in the Middle District remains an open wound on the soul of Alabama, exuding a purulent Niagara. Allowing Canary to remain in office while she shamelessly uses that office to launch political attacks on the President’s own party, suggests nothing less than an Administration that doesn’t know the basic mechanics of government and politics. At a purely political level, this attack on the Alabama Democratic Party, sanctioned by this President and his Attorney General through their inaction, threatens decades of progress in placing black hands on the levers of power in this state. For all its faults, and they are legion, the Alabama Democratic Party has given a real seat at the table to Alabama blacks, in the form of some of the most powerful committee chairmanships in the Legislature. These include, but are not limited to, Sen. Hank Sanders of the Senate Education F&T, and Rep. John Knight of the House Government Appropriations Committee. If Canary’s political cooperation with the GOP costs the Democrats our tenuous hold on the Legislature, these black leadership positions will be a thing of the past - and of a distant future.

If the cries of Montgomery politicians under indictment don’t generate sympathy, certainly the lamentation of unemployed workers in the Black Belt does. One effect of the bribe-induced Riley-Canary war on bingo in Alabama is the closure of bingo operations in Greene, Macon and Houston Counties, that employed literally thousands of workers, and brought millions of dollars annually to local government treasuries. We all wish that overwhelmingly black Greene and Macon Counties had bulldozers clearing land for new automotive and electronics plants, or for high-powered biology labs or computer engineering firms, but that’s the progress of the next generation. Right now, those counties are absolutely dependent on the entertainment and gaming business for their economic survival, and Obama’s what-me-worry attitude about Canary has placed that survival in jeopardy. Even in the white-majority Wiregrass, it’s probably safe to assume that Country Crossing employed a fair number of African-Americans in its service sector jobs. Had Bob Riley needed to worry about a U.S. Attorney with integrity in Montgomery, he would likely not have earned his Mississippi Choctaw bribes by shutting down the bingo halls, and the Legislature would probably have put a bingo referendum on this November’s ballot. As it is, there is no way to know when, or if, these businesses will reopen. At some point, even the President’s biggest supporters have to ask if he’s paying attention.

If he is not paying attention, he should. The simple mathematics are this: but for the votes of black voters in Southern primaries in 2008, Hillary Clinton, and not Barack Obama, would have been the Democratic nominee, and probably President. The black vote he received in South Carolina’s primary allowed his campaign to regain traction after his New Hampshire loss to Clinton. Politics being what it is, unless Democratic losses (most of which are the fault of Obama’s inept messaging and political strategy) next month exceed our worst nightmares to date, Obama is unlikely to have serious opposition for renomination in 2012. But if he does, he will again depend on Southern black primary voters - including those unemployed persons in Eutaw and Tuskegee - to bring him through. And if he presumes they will vote for him because he is black, despite a record inimical to their interests, maybe he should ask his former friend, Artur Davis, how that worked for him.


  1. As the young people say, Word (I concur)

    If a Democrat makes center-right appointments, we’re in for a long century.