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How Do African-American Scholars Rank Presidents?

There are two traditional factors experts usually take into account when measuring presidential greatness. First, the unique set of circumstances facing each president that tests whether or not they have the personal qualities considered necessary for greatness. Second, whether a president takes an incremental approach to solving problems or tries to deal with the"big ideas" which move the nation forward to a new plateau. Nevertheless, I believe that it matters, with respect to both their character and the scope of their agenda, whether presidents govern in a manner that balances majority interests and those of excluded groups.

Given that so much of American politics has been devoted to the debate over the inclusion of excluded groups -- blacks and other racial minorities, women, the elderly, the disabled and the poor -- it is only fair to suggest that one standard of greatness is whether or not a president has achieved such a balance. Indeed, in practical terms, this standard constitutes a qualitative difference in the current evaluation of presidential greatness between white and black intellectuals.

One illustration of this difference came in an end-of-the-millennium assessment of important twentieth-century presidents by the New York Times Magazine. The editors asked historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., to replicate a survey of presidential greatness that his father had previously published in 1948 and 1962. So, in 1996, Schlesinger asked thirty-two historians (only one of whom was black) and two politicians to rate the presidents, deciding whether they belonged in the categories of"Great,""Near Great,""High Average,""Average,""Below Average," or"Failure."

At the same time, Professors Hanes Walton, Jr., and Robert Smith surveyed forty-four black political scientists and historians about presidential leadership for their recent textbook, American Politics and the African-American Quest for Universal Freedom. Whereas Schlesinger had had his group use their own criteria in ranking the presidents, Walton and Smith insisted that only two factors be taken into account: the racial attitudes of presidents and the racial legislation they proposed. Each president was assigned a category:"White Supremacist,""Racist,""Racially Neutral,""Racially Ambivalent" and"Antiracist."

Any comprehensive evaluation of the greatness of a president requires a consideration of his racial sensitivity. After all, this subject has existed as a subliminal discussion between the dominant and subordinate communities in the United States for its entire history. More recently, it has emerged as an issue of national interest among those who are re-examining the slave-holding past of highly regarded presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But how do we assess the greatness of a complex character like Jefferson, who could claim to oppose slavery while owning slaves (and simultaneously having an affair with one, Sally Hemings)? Similarly, how do we assess Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon who, while supporting aspects of civil rights meant to empower blacks, at the same time referred privately to blacks with derogatory racial expressions?

This tension is illustrated when considering the more contemporary tenure of Ronald Reagan who, along with George Bush, Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, is categorized in the Walton and Smith survey as Racially Ambivalent (a president whose actions range from Antiracist to Race Neutral). This very objective rendering of black professional attitudes, however, belies the view of the heads of the major leadership organization in the black community, the NAACP, for example, who considered Ronald Reagan to be a"racist" president, because his style of governance excluded them from access to the White House, devalued the Civil Rights legacy and led to the withdrawl of federal funding to support black community development.

In a comprehensive assessment of presidential governance like Schlesinger's, the rating of Average for Reagan seems correct. In arriving at their categorization the Schlesinger respondents probably took into consideration the racial aspect of Reagan's tenure. Another assessment of Reagan's presidential performance by Policy Review, a conservative journal, resulted in a much higher rating for Reagan, and probably did not consider his record on race and civil rights issues.

We now measure the greatness of presidents in light of the scope of their agenda, the quality of their character, and the way they handle themselves in a crisis. These are valid and important measures. But in the future we will need to test presidents by how they respond to the evolving major domestic fact of twenty-first century America -- the substantial changes in the social demography of the nation.

Future presidents will have to be judged by how they deal with the dramatic shift to a much more polyglot culture, a shift that is inexorable and which we might call the ongoing crisis of inclusion in America. Courtesey of TomPaine.com