Race Talk in the Obama Era

"Race talk" has occupied a contradictory place in Barack Obama's political strategy. On the one hand, Obama has made it newly salient. The speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 that elevated him to political stardom focused on his vision of reconciliation, racial and otherwise: "There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America," Obama declared, "there's the United States of America." The single speech for which he has been most lauded was his "A More Perfect Union" March 2008 address in Philadelphia, delivered to quell the uproar over his relationship with the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In that speech, Obama declared that his life story as the child of a black father and white mother "has seared into [his] genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts -- that out of many, we are truly one."

He went on to say that "race is an issue that ... this nation cannot afford to ignore." Yet as president, Obama has largely avoided discussing race. He was compelled to give his celebrated speech on Wright during the campaign only because the controversy threatened to destroy his candidacy. Otherwise, except on ceremonial occasions before predominantly black audiences, he has rarely initiated discussion of racial matters. Since his Inauguration, Obama has evaded the very issue he said the nation cannot afford to ignore. Should we sympathize with his ironic plight -- the first black president ducking racial controversy? Or press him to do more?

Some activists, politicians, intellectuals, and pundits (for example, Cornel West, Paul Street, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Black Agenda Report) fault Obama for laying low on the racial front. Disappointed by Obama's reticence, Georgetown University sociologist Michael Eric Dyson charges derisively that "this president runs from race like a black man runs from a cop." Dyson wants Obama to use his presidential bully pulpit to educate the country about America's ongoing but neglected struggles over racial justice.

If Dyson's sentiment became influential in black America, it might prompt Obama to reconsider his reluctance to discuss race. After all, black voters are the anchor of the pro-Obama coalition. But the Dyson view is marginal within black America and likely to stay that way. The vast majority of black Americans are not sympathetic to the demand that Obama engage in more race talk. They are willing to defer to Obama almost unconditionally, so deep is their appreciation for his presence in the White House. From their own experience, most blacks are well aware of the tightrope that Obama necessarily walks on race.

Critics object with exasperation, contending that blacks are too easily satisfied by the vicarious pleasure of merely witnessing the triumph of one of their own -- even if he takes them for granted and relegates race-specific issues to the lower rungs of the national agenda. That complaint is weighty. Socialized to expect hostility or indifference, many blacks are unduly impressed when politicians show them even minimal respect, much less affection. For merely treating blacks as peers, Bill Clinton was fondly adopted by many African Americans as an honorary Brother. A still more powerful dynamic is at hand with Obama, whom blacks will continue to support enthusiastically -- almost regardless of the extent to which he discusses race and almost regardless of the substance of his policies in general.

Reinforcing this solidarity is a widespread recognition of Obama's ironic plight: Powerful though he is, the president is subject to a predominantly white electorate, many of whose members are ignorant about the history and current state of white-privileging pigmentocracy and are quick to denounce any complaints about it as unjustified whining or opportunistic playing of the race card. Hence, most blacks agree with the president that (regardless of what he suggested previously) it would be foolhardy for him now to offer the country instruction in an ongoing and contentious seminar on race.

Candid race talk in front of a national audience could easily backfire on Obama. Unless carefully scripted, such talk coming from the president is more likely to exacerbate anxiety than to nourish understanding. That is why some of Obama's most vocal right-wing enemies -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck -- delight in associating Obama with any sort of racial controversy and seek to draw him into racial disputes. It is their most effective way of blackening him.

Recall the ruckus that erupted in the summer of 2009 when a white police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, arrested the black celebrity-academic Henry Louis ("Skip") Gates in his own home after the professor had produced the identification the officer demanded. Asked about this highly publicized incident, Obama, speaking off the cuff, suggested that the officer had acted "stupidly" and that "separate and apart from this incident ... there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."

This should not have been seen as a bold statement. Obama did not charge the officer with racial bias; he simply stated that the officer acted wrongly. Moreover, the comment about disproportion is, as Obama stated, simply a fact. To Glenn Beck, however, Obama's remarks revealed something sinister. They showed, Beck said on Fox and Friends, that the president is "a guy who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."

Readers of these pages will scoff at such a ridiculous claim, and with good reason: It is ludicrous. Obama has gone out of his way to avoid making charges of racial discrimination. When a Republican representative from South Carolina, Joe Wilson, screamed "You lie" during Obama's address on health-care reform to a joint session of Congress, many observers, including former President Jimmy Carter, posited that racism had played a role in his brazen rudeness. Obama, by contrast, notably refused to interpret Wilson's egregious misconduct as racial effrontery. The right, however, gave him no credit for that. Its propagandists much prefer to portray the president as a racial opportunist intent on exacting reverse discrimination, racial revenge, and reparations.

It is a mistake, though, to dismiss as insignificant these rantings. The right has turned the trope of "reverse discrimination" into a powerful rhetorical tool that has prompted liberals to inhibit themselves unduly, even to the point of taking self-destructive steps. Recall the dismal episode in which right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart accused Shirley Sherrod, a black official in the Department of Agriculture, of having withheld assistance from white farmers because of racial bias. Officials in the Obama administration were so keen to deprive Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and the rest of the Fox News apparatus of a potentially hurtful talking point that they pressured Sherrod into resigning without even hearing her account of the situation. It turns out, as we now know, that contrary to Breitbart's portrayal, Sherrod did all that she could to assist the farmers -- aid for which they publicly thanked her even as she was being vilified as a "reverse racist."

Some liberals long for President Obama to address race in a major speech or even to restart the national conversation on race that President Clinton initiated (and then aborted) in 1997. They believe that Obama is uniquely capable of raising the level of discussion. They point with admiration to his "A More Perfect Union" address and note that it received plaudits even from many conservatives. But perhaps they give Obama too much credit.

That rare address on race was not nearly as candid or visionary as Obama's admirers wishfully imagine. It did accomplish its primary aim -- to quell the uproar over Obama's relationship with the Rev. Wright. Otherwise, though, it was wanting. Striving for a rhetoric of mutual empathy, it sought to equate white racial resentment and black racial resentment as if white and black America had played equal roles in the racial division of the society. Such a portrayal, is, of course, a gross distortion; white America enslaved and segregated black America, not the other way around. In Obama's famous speech, there is talk of slavery and segregation but no reference to masters or segregationists. In his narrative, bad things just tragically happened to African Americans. Obama's studious use of the passive voice was by no means inadvertent; he meant to avoid pointing an accusatory finger at white folks. His speech, moreover, was devoid of any specific prescriptions regarding such matters as affirmative action or reform of mass incarceration. Giving a speech on race now as president would require that he confront such divisive topics.

Obama will avoid such a risky undertaking. This is in part due to his own temperament. Audacious in terms of personal ambition -- it took real boldness for a black man to capture the White House -- Obama is deeply, perhaps excessively, cautious when it comes to propounding public policy. His avoidance of race is also due in part to the constraints that would impinge upon any person serving as the nation's first black chief executive. Any black president speaking with informed candor about the continued subordination of black America would widely be seen as a whiner perpetrating racial favoritism and thus would invite electoral retribution. In other words, it is, I think, virtually impossible for a black president today to lead a productive conversation on race without committing himself to political martyrdom.

Since Obama prides himself on being a survivor and clearly relishes the prospect of a second presidential term, he will decline to enter into a conversation on race before the 2012 campaign. I suspect that he will avoid initiating such a conversation even if he wins.

Evaluating his decisions will be difficult. Presidential race talk should be assessed not in the abstract but according to whether its presence or absence is likely to advance progressive thinking and policy. Under the circumstances, Obama is probably ill-positioned to lead a probing and useful exploration of the race question in 21st-century America. That doesn't mean abandoning discussion, which is much needed. It simply means recognizing that in racial matters, as in other areas, progressives should move ahead on their own, with or without presidential sponsorship.

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