Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

January 20, 2016

Obama and Race

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.
He presided over several town meetings, which stimulated myriad spinoffs as local community residents gathered in churches, homes, restaurants, schools, and town halls to listen to one another. Officials did the same in federal agencies, and at least one—a ranking African-American civilian in the Pentagon—journeyed around the country to facilitate discussions, both in military and civilian arenas.
            Obama explicitly rejected that approach in 2013 after a Florida jury’s not-guilty verdict in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot down by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman. “I do recognize that as President, I’ve got some convening power,” Obama said as he recalled that he had also been stereotyped as violent and had triggered fear—and that Trayvon Martin could have been his son.
However, Obama then continued: “There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”
Yes, but that exercise would be helped by an impetus from the top, and we are not likely for a long time to have a president as qualified as Obama to do it. “Stilted and politicized” would be too grim an assessment if applied to the Clinton-inspired dialogues, which engaged varieties of citizens in discussions that had not been conducted as extensively before. I was invited to participate in the first public town hall, a televised session that began to lay out issues and attitudes that are usually buried under euphemisms and platitudes. This spawned less public, more probing follow-up discussions at local levels.
The impact of such meetings is always hard to measure. But if conversation is conducted respectfully, if whites listen attentively to blacks, if blacks listen openly to whites, and if age-old patterns of stereotyping are spread out on the table for inspection, some participants will not escape without thinking and rethinking. “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” Obama asked perceptively. He needs to help us do it. We need policies, true, and laws that are enforced and budgets that are ample. But we also need to keep talking about race. It’s like riding a bike. Unless you keep going forward, you fall off.  
 Obama as President has been vilified not only on a plane of legitimate political complaint but also in a dimension that plays with age-old racial assumptions about blacks as angry, violent, menacing, “other,” incompetent, and marginal to the acceptable mainstream. Some racial allusions are blatant and ugly, others are encrypted and subtle. In fact, far from ushering in a post-racial era, his election appears to have given voice to crude expressions of bigotry—what Southern segregationists used to call, in warning, a white backlash against change.
So Obama would surely be accused of self-serving lecturing if he led us into national soul-searching. The extremist right has mostly dropped all pretense of civility. That’s all the more reason for him to take on the task. What more can they say about him? What does he have to lose? He would find millions of Americans of all races with him wholeheartedly.
This might not be harmonious with Obama’s sense of himself, however. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he recalls his energizing speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where he declared, “There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.” He then writes, “In a sense I have no choice but to believe in this vision of America. As the child of a black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian but who’s usually mistaken for Mexican or Puerto Rican, and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, so that family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe.”
Would that it were true for all Americans.
Read below excerpts of what Obama has said about race in speeches and interviews that have often been overlooked by the mainstream press. His own words make the best case for his own role in leading the way:

July19, 2013: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. … I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
“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. 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. …
“Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.  It’s not to make excuses for that fact—although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.  They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.
“And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration.  And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent—using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.”
Dec. 10, 2014, interview on BlackEntertainment Television: “… not only do I hear the pain and frustration of being subjected to that kind of constant suspicion, but part of the reason I got into politics was to figure out how can I bridge some of those gaps in understanding so that the larger country understands this is not just a black problem or a brown problem. This is an American problem. … It used to be, folks would say, ‘Well, maybe blacks are exaggerating, maybe some of these situations aren't what they described.’ What we've now seen on television, for everybody to see, gives us an opportunity, I think, to finally have the kind of conversation that's been a long time coming.”

March 7, 2015, on Edmund Pettus Bridge atthe 50th anniversary of the Marches from Selma to Birmingham: “There’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem.  And this is work for all Americans, not just some.  Not just whites.  Not just blacks.  If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination.  All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now.  All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children.  And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.”


  1. I am so glad you wrote this article! It seems to me, conversations on race are critically important. Surely, they aren't the only thing we should be doing, but they are one important tool we could be using to make progress. In Dallas, an organization called Dallas Dinner Table (dallasdinnertable.com) puts together racially diverse groups of 8-10 people who share a facilitated conversation about race annually on MLK Day. Apparently, this began around 2000, but I participated for the first time this year. It was eye-opening. Youth need similar conversations so they can unlearn the stereotypes they've been taught. The Possibility Project (the-possibility-project.org/about/overview/) does just this, and I hope to bring one to Dallas. Perhaps we can teach youth how to ride a bike and then help them keep practicing, practicing, practicing. Hope and change are possible if we come together and do the hard work of listening to one another.

  2. Thought provoking words, Dave - but I would add from my personal perspective how much progress I've seen over the last 50 years. I am thinking of how, when I first started working in New York in the 60's, you rarely saw black people in corporate offices. Today you see a great many. Even the secretarial pool was strictly white back then. Today it includes many black people who are now thoroughly "white collar." I have seen in TV pieces about the U.S. Army, that many couples in the Army are intermarried - much to my amazement. It seems to be common in the Armed forces - at least in the programs that I've seen. Seems to me like there's been a lot of change. Not that there shouldn't be more - of course there should be - but I do note that there has been significant change over the last 50 years.
    Maybe Obama, as a very highly educated man of a very white mother and a very highly educated, black-African father - so different from the usual "African American" background - maybe he doesn't readily relate to that usual racial description. I don't know - just guessing. He's so distinguished! He's in a funny place. Different. Maybe he feels he's got a pretty full plate with the world in the tangled mess that it is! Just guessing...!
    Thanks for your carefully considered thoughts.