Obama's Moment of Introspection

Today, Barack Obama did something he has only done a few times in the years he has been on the national stage: He talked about race. In an extemporaneous statement to White House reporters, Obama discussed the reaction to the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. He spent the first third of his remarks talking about where African Americans were coming from, in an implicit plea for empathy from white Americans. He didn't accuse anyone of ill will, but he did in effect say, "Here's how black people are feeling and why," in an attempt to explain the sources of people's disappointment and pain. After that, he talked about what government might do to make these kinds of tragedies less likely—training for police officers, and perhaps a rethinking of "stand your ground" laws if they make conflicts more likely. He ended on a hopeful note, saying, "as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race." 

We'd challenge conservatives to pick out a single sentence in Obama's statement that they could say was unfair to white people, or encouraged anything other than greater mutual understanding. But all too predictably, some conservatives showed once again that empathy is something they are either utterly incapable of or simply find politically inconvenient. There is no anti-Obama rage like the rage he provokes on the right when he brings up race. It doesn't matter what he says. No matter how humane, how encompassing, how careful—should Obama ever so gently suggest that race is something with which we as a country still struggle, a tsunami of bile is inevitably directed his way. If you weren't on Facebook or Twitter to see it today, count yourself lucky that your faith in your fellow Americans wasn't brought down a notch or two by all the ugliness. If you had read that reaction without actually seeing what Obama said, you would have thought he marched into the press room in fatigues and a beret, shouting "Black power! Black power!" and talking about hunting down whitey.

We suspect that the part of his talk that irked conservatives the most was this: "There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. And there are very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often. And you know, I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear."

The reason that this particular plea for empathy and understanding can generate such an angry reaction is that it touches on white privilege. It's easy to say, "Well I'm no racist," but it's harder to acknowledge that if you don't get followed when you walk into a store, if you don't have people lock their doors when you walk by, if you don't see women clutch their purses when you enter an elevator, if you aren't subjected to frequent "stop and frisks" by the police because they say you made a "furtive movement," and if you don't worry every time your son goes out at night that the wrong person will consider him a criminal and initiate a series of events that leads to his death, then you're the beneficiary of a society still infused with racism. To be told, even by implication, that you benefit from an unequal system? That's just intolerable.

 

SO THEY SAY

And let me just leave you with—with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. I doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union—not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

President Barack Obama, at today's press briefing

DAILY MEME: MOTOR CITY RUNS OUT OF GAS

  • Yesterday, Detroit became the largest American city to file for bankruptcy
  • The city, known most for being a metonym for the auto industry, owes more than$18 billion in debts.
  • It isn't a suprise that Detroit has hit rock bottom. Many observers have beenpredicting this for decades
  • In the past year, eight other cities and towns have filed for bankruptcy.
  • There are a lot of talking points flinging across the Internet about what caused the city's slow fall. Here's some context and fact-checking to keep in mind.
  • Besides the U.S. auto industry's exodus from Detroit (as well as the attrition of its residents), the city has also been crippled by high unemployment, and high crime.
  • The auto industry that left Detroit in the dust, however, is doing quite well
  • However, now that the city has hit rock bottom, Michigan's leaders are ready to try and make some new magic in Detroit, even if the old splendor might be gone for good.
  • As one person in Detroit said today, "The worst thing we can do is ignore the problem. We’re finally executing a fix.”

WHAT WE'RE WRITING

  • For minority Millennials, writes Nona Willis Aronowitz, the economic downturn has brought back a more traditional way of life.
  • Much of the spot news coverage about Detroit filing for bankruptcy has focused on its immediate fiscal crisis. But, as Harold Meyerson notes, what really killed the city was the decline of the American auto industry.

WHAT WE'RE READING

  • Jonathan Chait picks at the story lines in This Town that still need to be teased out, namely how to fix this town.
  • One police officer in Boston was deeply offended by Rolling Stone's cover image. In response, he released never-before-seen images of Dzhohkar Tsarnaev emerging from that boat.
  • Ten million Latinos will be eligible for the expanded Obamacare coverage. Is there any money to spread the news?
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates objects to Obama's motions toward adding New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to his cabinet.
  • Don't count on "Stand Your Ground" legislation dying any time soon.
  • In Syria "7,132 children younger than 15 have been killed since fighting began in March 2011."
  • "If a school promotes academic rigor and going to college, that shapes student behavior. If a school's environment feels unsafe and looks like a prison, then that does, also." A case study of a school in Philadelphia that saw violence drop when the metal detactors were replaced with different tactics.
  • The New York Times provides the complete guide to the New York mayoral race. 

POLL OF THE DAY 

In 1993, 44 percent of blacks in the U.S. cited discrimination as the reason they, on average, had worse jobs, housing, and income than whites. Today, that number has lowered to 37 percent, and sixty percent of blacks say the reason they generally fall behind in those three categories is due to “something else.” The question did not elaborate on what could fall into the “something else” category.

Comments

The dismaying, outrageously hateful commentary following The Wall Street Journal’s report on President Obama’s press conference made me furious. Luckily, The American Prospect’s steadying and encouraging message was next in my inbox. In it, Paul Waldman and Jaime Fuller reminded me of an essential first step away from futile anger. As the President demonstrated: Empathy and understanding demand hard and courageous work.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement