By David K. Shipler
On Monday’s holiday, Barack and Michelle Obama visited an elementary school in Washington, DC, filled backpacks with books for kids, helped make planters for the school’s vegetable garden, and celebrated the service of AmeriCorps mentors. But Martin Luther King Jr. Day passed with no speech by the first African-American president about race in America. Nor, in his final State of the Union address last week, did Obama include a discussion of the state of race relations, despite the strains and fault lines that have grown more visible in recent years.
On matters of race, he has not used his bully pulpit very well. Not that he’s ignored the topic: Very occasionally over his two terms, he’s offered some of the most eloquent and insightful commentary heard from any president, usually at a ceremonial or tragic moment. He has initiated a series of concrete policies aimed at improving the lot of minorities, including a task force on policing that might help counter bias in uniform.
But what he has not done, for whatever reasons, is spark and guide the kind of ongoing, searching introspection that the country needs. This is a loss for all of us.
Bill Clinton, a president whose acute sensibilities were shaped by his upbringing as a white kid in Arkansas during the Civil Rights Movement, organized a national conversation on race during his second term.