The Forgotten Promise of Obama's Race Speech

On March 18, 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama gave a speech on race in Philadelphia designed to lance the boil of the Jeremiah Wright controversy and provide a thoughtful commentary on the current state of race in our nation. Less than a year later, on Jan. 20, 2009, Obama was inaugurated president. Buoyed by his thoughtful prose and the promise of a progressive approach to race and race relations, he rode a tide of change into the Oval Office.

But sadly, the progress hoped for by many in minority communities has not materialized. Instead, our conversations about race and its impact on American life are no more insightful or sophisticated than before, as evidenced by the discomfort we have in discussing racial issues in anything other than a superficial form. The newly appointed attorney general, Eric Holder, attempted to have an honest conversation about race and racism with his colleagues at the Justice Department last February.

In his speech, Holder made vitally important points, describing the strides we have made in the workplace but noting how far we have to go in desegregating our private lives. He explained the need for understanding and for a basic grasp of history, which is so often missing from current discussions of racial progress. He addressed our problems honestly, noting, "This nation has still not come to grips with its racial past nor has it been willing to contemplate, in a truly meaningful way, the diverse future it is fated to have. To our detriment, this is typical of the way in which this nation deals with issues of race."

The media seized upon his "nation of cowards" remark and deftly avoided the content of Holder's speech. Obama, who had once called for greater understanding about race in a public forum, backed away. He chose instead to placate those invested in suppressing any conversation about race, rather than acknowledge the truth of Holder's words. As Obama distanced himself from Holder's honesty, the national conversation on race switched to a more familiar course: Hysteria, finger pointing, and stereotypes dominated the airwaves while information, facts, and historical understanding fell by the wayside.

The shenanigans continued after Skip Gates, a Harvard University professor and renowned scholar, was arrested when he was suspected of burglarizing his own home and had an argument with the arresting officer. The incident became a jumping-off point for conversations about African Americans and racial profiling, but Obama once again deflected from this larger conversation and instead promoted the idea that this was nothing more than a personal misunderstanding between two men.

On July 30, he brought Gates and Sgt. James Crowley together at the White House. While the gathering was intended to show that much of our racial animus could be resolved with a little understanding, the Beer Summit in the Rose Garden demonstrated that race is far from being resolved in our hearts and minds. The banality of the event was best captured by the Swampland blog, which noted even the choice of beer was designed to be uncontroversial:

Obama sipped Bud Light, the top selling beer in America. ... It is a beer so bland that it advertises itself by proclaiming its "Drinkability," which is another way of saying its similarity to water. It is the safest beer the president could possibly have chosen, the stuff of poll testing and focus groups.

While we were busy dodging substantial discussions of race and racism, a different type of conversation rose to prominence. It is characterized by its singular focus on confrontation -- call it Racial Kombat. When people play Racial Kombat, the focus is on dominating the discussion, not on fostering understanding. Think about the way in which race is discussed as a zero-sum game on outlets like Fox News, and you can figure out the basics.

Racial Kombat is great for ratings but strips society of the opportunity to have a productive conversation about race. Each time an opportunity to have a conversation passes, so too does the opportunity to become more experienced in having the discussion. As a result, we've seen many awkward encounters, like the fumbling of senators during Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

The senators, mostly older white men, displayed an institutional discomfort with discussing racial inequality and how it has affected the composition of the Supreme Court. Some senators attempted to seize upon Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comments without ever considering the context of the lecture that contained the words -- or even pausing to ponder the full weight of the sentence: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Or consider the comments of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid during the 2008 elections that recently came to light in the book Game Change. He cluelessly used terms like "light-skinned" and "negro dialect" when discussing the reasons he thought Obama had a shot at the presidency. But Reid's comments did not touch off a conversation about the prevalence of racist thoughts and attitudes in this country, nor did they spark any serious introspection about why racial bias is still a necessary part of campaign strategy. The only reason the Reid comments got any sort of attention was because other politicians, primarily Republicans, took the opportunity to posture.

Those calling for Reid to step down included GOP Chair Michael Steele, who about a week before had casually used the term "honest Injun." The media focused only on those questions that could easily fall into sound bites, and, as a result, our discussion of race has actually regressed over the past few years. In the meantime, racial animosity continued to grow, unaddressed by major media outlets. Research from the Southern Poverty Law Center indicates that membership in hate groups is on the rise, and the vitriolic nature of the outbursts over health-care reform and immigration reform appear to be increasingly racially motivated. Two years ago, it took the media three full days to catch on to Trent Lott's support of an avowed segregationist, Strom Thurmond, who had sat in the Senate chamber for half a century.

It should come as no surprise then, that Rep. Rob Schaaf of Missouri can proudly declare in a political ad targeting health-care reform, "I Am A Racist," and not face any real censure. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said so long ago, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle." Indeed, if we do not embrace the struggle inherent in working through our racial divide, and instead pander to those who would believe that ignoring a problem is the same as solving it, we will never realize Dr. King's dream. After all, it is difficult to sit together at the table of brotherhood if our lunchrooms and dining rooms are still segregated.