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Michael Higginbotham: A Request from Heaven Asks Obama to Not Forget the Race Issue

As an American with mixed-racial heritage and a multiracial coalition, this president is in a unique position to initiate and lead the race conversation

Since the passing of A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. in 1998, many have wondered what the award-winning author, longest-serving black federal judge, first black to head a federal regulatory agency, recipient of the Spingarn Medal and the Congressional Medal of Freedom, and author of the famous “Open Letter to Clarence Thomas,” would think of the state of race relations today.

Michael Higginbotham
Michael Higginbotham

Appointed to the Federal Trade Commission in 1962, Higginbotham served in several powerful federal positions including vice chairman of the Kerner Commission, member of the first wiretap surveillance court, and chief judge of a U.S. Court of Appeals. Known as the conscience of the American judiciary on race issues, Higginbotham caused controversy in 1992, when he publicly reminded U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of the contributions to racial equality made by his predecessor, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall.

In the 18 years since this first public letter, much progress has been made, including Higginbotham’s former student, Michelle Obama, becoming the first black first lady. As a law professor related to Higginbotham, who worked closely with him, I feel compelled to share “his letter” to President Barack Obama after one year in office.

Dear President Obama:

Congratulations on completing your first year as president and on your health-care legislation progress. While others have tried, you are the first to get this far. In these tumultuous times, your job is of vital importance. The unemployment rate is the highest it has been in more than 25 years. The nation is involved in two military conflicts. The incarceration rate is the highest in the world, and the American people are divided. The country desperately needs a unifying leader, because there is another monumental problem — this one of longstanding stature — that also must be addressed: racial inequality.

No doubt, your inauguration ended an era in American history. When I arrived at Yale Law School as a student in 1949, a black janitor hugged me, with tears in his eyes, exclaiming that he was just so happy to see a black face in the student body. Many years of experience however, taught me that it takes much more than positions and accolades to affect inequality that has persisted for centuries.

Neither your swift rise to the presidency, nor the presence of any minority in a position of power, marks the end of racism. Black unemployment, incarceration and poverty rates are twice that of whites. Overt racism, expressly sanctioned by laws, has given way to covert racism, tacitly approved through “color-blind” policies and “race-neutral” programs. Inequality is caused and maintained by choices that result in inadequate anti-discrimination laws, inequitable school funding, education deficiencies, housing isolation, economic exploitation, criminal justice stereotyping, and political under-representation. If true equality is ever to be achieved, the “hearts and minds” of the American people must change first.

Your 2008 Father’s Day speech encouraging black male familial responsibility was inspiring. Without a serious change in how blacks view their own destinies (as being at least to some extent out of their control due to racism), it will be impossible to resolve the race issue. You should also remind whites that white privilege must stop. A failure to acknowledge structural racism, white isolationism and overvaluation, ignores the reality of current race relations.

The debate over affirmative action provides a prime example. Five states, including California, have forbidden race from being used as a factor in public college or university admissions. Yet, these same states allow a preference for children of alumni even when blacks were excluded from those schools in the past or did not attend in large numbers. Under such circumstances, prohibiting a preference for under-represented blacks, while permitting a preference for children of mostly white alumni, exacerbates racial disparities, even though on its face it appears race-neutral.

In your 2008 campaign speech from Philadelphia, you called for a new conversation on race. Since then, however, with the exception of the alleged profiling incident involving Cambridge, Mass., police Officer James Crowley and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, and the controversy surrounding inappropriate language about your candidacy by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., you have said very little on the subject.

I recognize that the economic, crime and military problems facing the country are enormous. As a black man appointed to several powerful positions in my time, I know, firsthand, the weight of office. But racial inequality, in good times and bad, has plagued America since its founding, and it will not end without new and more vigorous efforts. That is why I felt compelled to encourage you to continue the conversation on race even as you grapple with other problems. I will watch your progress, from my vantage point in Heaven, with pride and hope for your success as the 44th president of the United States.


A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.
Chief Judge (Retired)
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

Michael Higginbotham, nephew of the late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., is the Wilson Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore and is the author of Race Law, a book dedicated to his uncle. This “request” articulates the author’s best judgment as to what Judge Higginbotham might have felt and written had he been living today.

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