Wednesday, March 18, 2009

President Obama Can't Talk About Race

Every superhero has something he can't do. Superman can't read your mind. Batman can't fly. Spiderman can't turn into a giant tiger.

Sometimes, it seems like President Obama is a superhero. He defeated what was considered the nation's most potent political machine. He was elected president, despite being a black man in a white America. He even plays basketball, and actually plays well. And he does it all without breaking a sweat (except for maybe that basketball part). But there's one thing he can't do, no matter how hard wants to: talk openly, honestly, and consistently about race.

That was the topic of a recent POLITICO article by Nia-Malika Henderson and Carrie Budoff Brown:

It was a year ago today that Barack Obama, then a candidate for president fearing a divisive racial backlash over his pastor, took to the stage in Philadelphia and said it was time to have a new conversation about race.

“We have a choice in this country,” Obama said that day. “We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the O.J. trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. . . .That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’ "

But in the year since that speech – through campaign and convention, election and inauguration – Barack Obama hasn’t taken part in the discussion of race in America in any sustained way, the way he did that day in Philadelphia to get out of a campaign jam.
Why is this? Henderson and Budoff Brown point to various explanations floating around. Some say Obama is "post-racial" and represents the fact that the nation has moved past discussing old, divisive racial categories. Others argue that it's just not in Obama's nature to talk about race. Still others suggest that there's just so much that Obama is dealing with, mainly the economy, that to have a full-blown discussion on race right now would be an unwise allocation of his time and energy resources.

However, I think there are two other factors at play that really prevent Obama from participating in the discussion on race in the way he may like to, and that I certainly wish he would.

Let's first consider that Philadelphia speech that the POLITICO article references. When Obama came to the National Constitution Center to deliver that speech, it was after much national outrage over controversial soundbites from his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright (who, ironically, grew up in Philly). Rev. Wright's comments on race were taken by many to be racist and anti-American. However, some saw at least nuggets of truth and honesty in Rev. Wright's ill-expressed words.

Obama's widely hailed speech was an attempt to move the nation toward having an honest, adult conversation on the very complex topic of race. What he soon found out is that the United States is simply a nation of small children in the bodies of adults. There was no willingness to engage in a real conversation on the merit of Jeremiah Wright's words or the motivation behind his rage. There was no real attempt to discuss the complexity of Obama's grandmother's views on race (except for maybe by accident on Angelo Cattaldi's Morning Show). Certainly, the speech received high praise from the mainstream media. However, that praise was framed in the tired perspective of moving on from racial division or constant obsession with race. The measuring stick for the success of the speech was how well Obama could put to rest the discussion of race or how well he could repudiate Wright's words.

I still argue that the speech was totally misinterpreted. If you actually listen to Obama's words - instead of trying to force them into and old and inaccurate narrative of racial history in America - you'll see that he was calling the nation to a more complex and mature conversation on race. Remember, Obama talked about how he could not "disown" Wright, and attempted to explain the source of Wright's anger. Also, remember that Obama did not initially leave Trinity United Church of Christ. Clearly, he had a more complex view of Wright than most of pitch-fork-toting America.

Still, most took his words and ran in a totally different direction. The United States proved itself to be a nation of cowards by avoiding a real conversation on race. Obama's speech became a new excuse to try to be post racial. So, when we consider that Obama does not speak much on the issue of race, at least not to the white media, we must remember that he tried that before, and the nation gave a resounding "we're not ready."

The second factor is that, even though he's the leader of the free world, Barack Obama is still a black man in America. The fact that there are certain things that a black person can not talk about openly without being attacked beyond reason hasn't changed. There can be steep consequences for a black person saying something that white America does not approve of. That's just part of white privilege and racial dynamics in this country. For examples, see Jeremiah Wright, Eric Holder, and even some of Obama's comments, such as calling his "typical white person" comment on Caltaldi's show.

For President Obama, more than any other African American, and more now than in the past, such statements carry a greater risk. There is, of course, the political risk. There is also the possibility that they become distractions that hinder his ability to enact key policy initiatives. With many crisis or near-crisis situations on his plate, the President simply can't afford that.

However, we can.

We can speak up on race. We can talk about how racial dynamics in this country binds the tongues of black leaders in this country. We can begin to create a climate that confronts race, so that when this financial crisis has subsided (which will hopefully be soon), the President will be able to engage the nation in a REAL conversation on race. And, when that time comes, we will be able to hold the president accountable for having this conversation. Although there will still be many in this country who won't be ready for such a conversation, one thing we've learned from the long journey to a black head of state is that waiting for the nation to be "ready" is not an option.

No comments: