While King used direct action to promulgate change, Obama used change as a campaign slogan. Worse yet, on so many critical issues — fair housing, war, and civil liberties — the Obama administration was the antithesis of change. Obama hasn’t earned King’s endorsement. Let me tell you why.
In 1966 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under King’s direction, entered into an alliance with local Chicago civil rights groups with the purpose of challenging inequity in the housing market. At that time there existed a dual market where whites could live where they pleased, while blacks were relegated to specific areas of the city. This rampant segregation was an anathema to King’s vision of an America that was undivided and truly morally righteous. That summer King marched amidst violence that surprised even him: “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today,” King exclaimed.
To underscore his commitment to ending the segregation, King relocated to the Cabrini Green neighborhood months earlier. For those unfamiliar with present-day Chicago, the Cabrini Green neighborhood is one of the toughest in the city, and little has changed from King’s day. By the end of the summer the Chicago Real Estate Board relented and agreed to support fair open housing laws in return for the demonstrations ending. King concluded that it was “a first step in a 1,000-mile journey.”
Fast forward to the recent past few years where we have seen the most home foreclosures in our nation’s history. And to make matters even worse, for many the system was rigged before the ink was dry on the loan documents. The Center for Responsible Lending has found that, on average, African-Americans and Latinos with credit scores above 660 were three times more likely to receive high interest loans. They also found that said groups were more than twice as likely to enter foreclosure or become seriously delinquent. When one out of every 5 homeowners owes more on their mortgage than their home is worth, turning the tide clearly won’t be easy. But not only has the Obama administration failed to do that, in many cases they’ve actually just prolonged the pain of the inevitable. And what about criminal charges brought against lenders? In an excellent analysis, Matt Taibbi, in The Rolling Stone, notes that only one mortgage lender executive has been charged with fraud even though a bipartisan Senate Subcommittee released a 650 page report detailing “a million fraud cases a year.”
Whether Congress goes after fraudulent lenders is certainly not within Obama’s discretion. However, the range of enforcement the Justice Department pursues utilizing existing laws is directly under Obama’s discretion, and that of his attorney general Eric Holder.
George W. Bush claimed the entire world was a war zone and the U.S. could kidnap, torture, and relocate anyone to an undisclosed location for an indefinite amount of time. At least that’s what Department of Justice attorneys argued endlessly in federal courts until the Boumediene Supreme Court decision in 2008. In that decision the court reasoned that one of the many problems with indefinite detention is “the consequence of error may be detention of persons for the duration of hostilities that may last a generation or more, this is a risk too significant to ignore.” The court also found that “the laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.”
In 2008 then-candidate Obama said regarding the court decision, that it was “a rejection of the Bush Administration’s attempt to create a legal black hole at Guantanamo,” and he compliment the Court for “rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus.” Obama couldn’t be more right. Boumediene himself recently wrote in a NY Times op-ed about his 7 years in U.S. captivity (all of which occurred during the George W. Bush administration) without a single charge brought against him.
Yet since early 2009 President Obama has sought to enshrine “prolonged detention” of terrorism suspects into the legal system. Such detention would prevent suspects from gaining access to courts to address charges brought against them, even though that is guaranteed in the constitution’s sixth amendment. Obama finally got his wish. Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes language that will allow for exactly the sort of detention envisioned in 2009, months after Obama took office.
A constitutional scholar not only neutering constitutional protections but codifying such denigration (with the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act), is as incongruous as seeing Tim Tebow in a brothel…with a Super Bowl ring on. So the only change in an Obama era would be that such detention was above Supreme Court review, because it would become existing law and no doubt strengthened over time with through case law.
So that’s what we’re left with — entrusting that a very smart man currently in the White House isn’t creating precedents that could be used years in the future by a far less intelligent and — even less “moral” — successor. To wit, last night in the GOP South Carolina debate on Fox News Mitt Romney said that he agreed with some of Pres. Obama’s tactics in the war on terror and that he believed Obama wouldn’t misuse his power, and nor would he misuse the power if he were president. That may be comforting to Romney (and possibly the boys over at Bain Capital) but that shouldn’t be comforting to the country. The American people don’t have to take a president’s ‘word for it’ that the constitution will be upheld. It’s kind of the bare minimum expected once a president takes the job — “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” is in the oath of office that every president takes for a reason.
King fought vigorously against the Vietnam War, believing that it was a gross injustice to not only the people of Vietnam but also U.S. soldiers who were minorities or lower-income and who died and were injured in the service of a country that had the temerity to proclaim moral superiority abroad yet lacked the basic humanity and was unable to treat each soldier the same upon their return home.
So what would King think of a war that compared to Vietnam was longer, more expensive, more expansive (essentially turned earth into a war zone), stripped civil liberties that were the bedrock of our constitution for well over 200 years, and was promulgated by the first black president who also happened to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner? “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government,” King said in reference to the Vietnam War. Sadly enough, King’s government hasn’t changed.