Recognition: The Role of Presidents

Starting in the late 20th Century, Presidents show a decidedly new emphasis on the recognition of a wide variety of groups.

By
John T. Woolley

Recognition: The Role of Presidents

African American History Month.

Americans have come to expect the President to be visible and vocal in recognizing cultural, racial, and religious groups in American society. It may come as a surprise to some to realize how relatively recent this practice has been.

Formal Presidential acknowledgement of African American History Month dates only to President Gerald R. Ford. In 1975, Ford set a precedent by issuing a “Message” on the observance of what was then only a “week” (“Black History Week”). The observance, first known as “Negro History Week,” dated from 1926. It was sponsored by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, founded in 1915 by the esteemed scholar Carter G. Woodson.

In 1976, the sponsoring organization, by that time known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), changed the observance from a week to a month. President Ford again issued a Message in 1976 honoring Black History Month.

Ford deserves special note because no other President had ever taken official notice of the event.

At least one, President Eisenhower, made it known that he would not issue a Proclamation about the week.[1] He specified that he would not act until after Congress passed a Joint Resolution authorizing a Proclamation (see Atlanta Daily World, January 21 1959, p. 1). Many resolutions to authorize such a proclamation had been introduced in Congress at least as early as 1950 (e.g., by Rep. Marcantonio (NY); Congressional Record, vol 96, part 2, p. 1826). But none had passed as of 1976.

Following Ford’s precedent, Black History Month was recognized (by Message, not Proclamation) in 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985. In election years 1980 and 1984, Presidents Carter and Reagan additionally had special ceremonies for signing their messages.

Senate Joint Resolution 74 (pdf of Resolution 74) recognizing the Month and seeking a Presidential Proclamation passed the House on February 6, 1986. It had passed the Senate the previous November. Reagan signed it into law on February 11, 1986.[2] The signing was not reported by either the Washington Post or the New York Times.

Subsequently, all Presidents have issued not only proclamations, but also statements, messages, and remarks related to Black History Month.[3] George H.W. Bush had 6, William Clinton had 13, George W. Bush issued 15, Barack Obama issued 18, Donald Trump had 12 (twice the number of George H. W. Bush in the same number of years), and as of early 2024, Joseph Biden had 8.

This mild escalation in attention is in part politically motivated—every constituency wants to be politically valued. And African Americans are assured of that in every political season.

A Broader Trend of Recognition

However, this change in presidential behavior toward African American History Month is part of something broader and is remarkable. Over time, there has been a powerful trend toward presidential recognition of cultural and racial minorities.

The Data. Below in Table A are totals for presidential recognition of a variety of cultural and ethic categories and ceremonial events. Since presidential recognition of African American History Month begins with Gerald Ford, in Table A again uses Ford as the breakpoint.

Table A reports the presidential mentions of a variety of cultural observances for the seven presidents in the 46 years before Ford (Hoover, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, and Nixon) and the seven in the following 44 years (Carter, Reagan, Bush41, Clinton, Bush43, Obama, Trump).

The counts of documents reported in Table A include any mention of a term or event, not only documents primarily devoted to those events or terms. The results include only “Presidential” documents (i.e., excluding Press Office, White House Statements, Press Briefings, and such). The final row in Table A is simply the total count of all presidential documents for each group of presidents in the APP as of February 2024

What the Data Show

At the outset, note that the total number of presidential documents of all sorts almost doubled in the second period compared to the first (factor of 1.9). Only one category Table A shows a smaller increase than all presidential documents—Columbus Day with an increase of 1.3 times. But in every other instance, the changes are technically infinite (i.e., some amount divided by zero), or simply very very large. The smallest proportionate increase is for references to Christmas—an increase of 2.9 times.

The presidential activity in recognizing cultural and religious groups has increased faster than presidential activity overall.

Presidential Initiative. Previously, I noted that Gerald Ford had acted on his own to recognize Black History Week. So in this surge of Presidential involvement with various groups, how much of that reflects Presidents acting on their own, like Ford did? And how much due to Congressional prodding?

The answer is in column 5 of Table A. Column 5 is a ratio of the entries in columns 3 and 4 of Table A. Column 3 is the total number of documents with the target references. Column 4 is the number of those references that are include in Proclamations—inevitably pursuant to a Congressional resolution.

The smaller the proportion in Column 5, the greater the degree of autonomous presidential initiative. All but two of the high initiative cases, involve religious references: Hanukkah, Passover, Ramadan, Diwali, Easter, Christmas. In none of these, is there a proclamations directly about the religious event. Rather, they are mentioned in the context of a proclamation with a different primary subject (e.g., religious freedom or Jewish Heritage). The two non-religious cases are St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo.

Of the remaining cases which involve proclamations, some stand out as having a large share of Presidentially initiated documents—African American History, and Irish-Americans. About half of the instances of Presidential mentions of the other “heritage” categories are in proclamations.

Recent Presidents have found it advantageous to pay a great deal of attention to racial, cultural, and religious groups.

Partisan Differences. The entries in the bottom cell of column 5 in Table A shows that there was very little the partisan difference in the total number of presidential documents post-Ford. The proportion of the total generated by Democratic presidents was slightly larger, by 1.2%, than that of Republicans (despite the fact that Democrats held the presidency for fewer years—20 v. 24). As a generality, then, we might expect to find a similarly small differences between parties across these various cultural references.

The actual number of documents by GOP presidents is reported by category in Column 6 of Table A. In parentheses is the GOP proportion of the total number in that category for the Carter-Trump years.

I begin by assuming that the GOP share in each category will be equal to the overall share of documents from GOP Presidents in the period (0.494). So the question is just how far the observed proportion in Column 6 is from the expected 0.494. If there is no meaningful variation among presidents based on party, the observed partisan frequency would be extremely close to 0.494 in each case.

The actual GOP proportions range from substantially smaller--0.32 for Irish-Americans--to substantially larger--0.65 for Columbus Day. But as a generality, there is little partisan difference by category. So, for example within 5 percent of the expected share are references to St. Patrick’s Day, Ramadan, Easter, Italian Americans, African American History, Passover, and Hanukkah.

A few others have observed proportions more than 10% different from the expected. For the Democrats these are: Diwali, Irish American, and Native American Heritage. For the Republicans, they are Columbus Day and Hispanic Heritage.

The partisan differences are not very big in most cases. This is itself remarkable, with the increase in presidential references suggesting a profound shift from attitudes dominating the earlier 20th century.

But, because these actions are completely subject to Presidential control, it is reasonable to infer that substantial differences they reflect some partisan commitments of significance. This might be a historical partisan attachment (Irish American) or some more substantive commitment to traditional positive views of historical discovery and colonization (Columbus Day).

Conclusions

Starting in the late 20th Century, Presidents documents show a decidedly new emphasis on the recognition of a wide variety of cultural groups—racial, ethnic, religious. We can be confident that if these documents are Proclamations, then this inclusive focus is shared by Congressional majorities. However, it is also clear that Presidential actions toward recognition extend far beyond a simple Congressional mandate.

These observations about recognition might seem to suggest that new exotic groups are in some sense displacing more traditional commitments. That seems not to be accurate, however, at least in these data.

For example, together the documents referring to Christmas or Easter equaled 1.4% of the documents in the pre-Ford era. Post-Ford, those topics occurred in 2.4% of the documents. That is, there was a substantial increase.

The same is true for two “traditional” identities examined, St. Patrick’s Day and Columbus Day. Pre-Ford, these accounted for 0.3% of presidential documents. Post-Ford, they were 0.4%.

The traditional groups and occasions actually gained relative visibility among presidential documents. This finding is surprising and instructive about the modern presidency’s capacity to monitor many different interests and issues.

TABLE A. Number of Presidential Documents Referring to Specific Religious, Racial, or Cultural Groups, Before and After the Presidency of Gerald R. Ford.

 

Hoover-Nixon

Ford

Carter-Trump

Carter-Trump Procs.

Proportion Procs.

GOP Share of Carter-Trump

African American History

0

2

89

26

0.29

45 (0.51)

St. Patrick’s Day

19

3

124

6

0.05

55 (0.44)

Columbus Day

53

3

72

44

0.61

47 (0.65

Italian-American

19

5

70

7

0.10

34 (0.48

Irish-American

2

1

81

29

0.36

26 (0.32)

Native American Heritage, American Indian

23

3

123

57

0.46

43 (0.35)

 

Chanukah/ Hanukkah

1

0

106

1

0.01

58 (0.55)

Passover

3

0

94

14

0.15

50 (0.53)

Jewish-American Heritage

0

1

75

39

0.52

30 (0.40)

Cinco de Mayo

1

0

53

0

0.0

30 (0.56)

Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Iftar or Iftaar

0

3

117

0

0.0

52 (0.44)

Diwali

0

0

23

0

0.0

5 (0.21)

Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month (Asian American and Pacific Islander; Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander)

0

0

59

32

0.54

34 (0.57)

Hispanic Heritage Week/Month

6

6

83

43

0.51

50 (0.60)

Easter

33

7

203

6

0.03

96 (0.47)

Christmas

305

25

878

14

0.016

484(0.55)

All Presidential

23,404

2505

45,040

5495

0.12

22,249 (0.49)

Notes: Below is another table containing URLs for the American Presidency project that can be used to replicate (or modify as appropriate) the searches generating these data.

 

[1] This does not detract from Eisenhower’s many contributions to race relations including his 1957-58 enforcement of Federal court ruling concerning Little Rock school segregation, and his role in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Eisenhower was the first to have a Black member of his senior staff E. Frederic Morrow. Those were all reasons why civil rights leaders were optimistic that Eisenhower would unilaterally proclaim Negro History Week.

[2] To be sure, February 1986 was the start of the midterm election campaign, and Reagan had given his State of the Union Address a few days before (02/04). Columnist William Safire called Reagan’s SOTU “the Speech that Failed.” Reagan was emphasizing family values and attacking welfare. The space shuttle Challenger had exploded on January 28, 1986. Democrats were touting the successes of Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis in moving people from welfare to good jobs. In November, Democrats took control of the Senate.

[3] This is counting Proclamations and documents primarily in the month of February that have more than an incidental reference to or connection to the Month.

 

APPENDIX:  Search URLs to Replicate the Document Counts Reported in this Analysis

 


Pre-Ford


Post Ford


Date of first proc and url


African American History


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


2/24/1986

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-5443-national-bla...


St. Patrick’s Day


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


none


Columbus Day


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


09/30/1934

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-2101-columbus-day


Italian American


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


7/31/1980

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-4800-italian-amer...


Irish-American


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


03/12/1991

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-6259-irish-americ...


Native American, American Indian


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


10/08/1976

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-4468-native-ameri...


Hanukkah


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


none


Passover


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


none


Jewish-American Heritage


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


04/24/1980

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-4752-jewish-herit...


Cinco de Mayo


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


none


Eid al-Fitr, Ramadan, Iftar, Iftaar


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


none


Diwali


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


None

 


Asian/Pacific, Native Hawiian, Pacific Islander


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


03/28/1979

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-4650-asianpacific...


Hispanic Heritage


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


9/17/1968

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-3869-national-his...


Easter


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


None


Christmas


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/advanced-search?field-keywords=&field-ke...


None