PHILADELPHIA — Russlynn Ali came here to the National Association of Black Journalists convention to talk about the black-white achievement gap in public education, but what she had to say could also help close the achievement gap that worries Barack Obama's key supporters.
Ali has spent most of her professional life on the front line of the struggle to improve educational opportunities — and results — for poor and minority schoolchildren. As the top civil rights enforcer in the U.S. Department of Education, she's the cop on the block when it comes to making sure state and local school districts don't violate anti-discrimination rules.
In the little more than two years she has been on this beat— once patrolled less effectively by Clarence Thomas — Ali has amassed an impressive record.
"We have launched more investigations than ever before. Much broader, bigger investigations" into whether school officials are unfairly disciplining black kids and shoving them "into the cradle-to-prison pipeline instead of the cradle-to-career pipeline," she told me.
By that she means the Obama administration is robustly challenging school systems that deny black and Hispanic high school students access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses that would improve their chances for college admission. It's also questioning disciplinary practices that treat black students more harshly than whites for similar offenses.
In fact, the Obama administration has launched more than 70 Title VI investigations (for race, color and national origin discrimination) in a little over two years, according to Education Department data. That's more than the Bush administration did in the prior eight years. And while it has stepped up probes in this long-neglected area, the department has not wavered in its pursuit of sex and disability discrimination cases, Ali said.
This impressive performance is something Obama's communications team has failed to trumpet. The biggest hurdle for the president to overcome en route to a second term isn't the Tea Party-led Republican scorched-earth attempt to unseat him; it's the erosion of support for him among members of his political base.
Obama won the presidency with the overwhelming support of black voters (95%), the strong backing of Hispanics (67%) and a sizable minority of whites (43%). Surprisingly, despite the withering right-wing attacks on his policies, his religion and birthright, Obama's approval rating among whites is just 4 percentage points lower than the white vote he received in 2008.
But the falloff of support among blacks and Hispanics has been much steeper. Obama's approval rating among blacks (85%) and Hispanics (54%) is significantly lower than the vote percentage these groups gave him in 2008. Much of this decline, I suspect, is due to the failure of his administration to tout the good things it has done for them for fear of a white backlash.
This silence — especially in the area of education, where the potential results can improve the lives of millions of blacks and Hispanics — has produced a loss of confidence among this vital core of Obama's political base.
Ali's aggressive efforts to close the achievement gap and combat discrimination in the nation's schools ought to help reverse this downslide. But that won't happen if the president's image managers don't get over their fear of touting the good things his administration is doing for this long-suffering, educationally disadvantaged part of the coalition that put him in office.