Column: Obama Should No Longer Avoid the Race Issue
President Barack Obama has something important to say about race in America. You know he does because he has devoted much of his life to studying its significance. As a university professor, he spent more than a decade lecturing on race and racism. In Chicago, as a community organizer, he saw firsthand how poverty gets exacerbated by race and he knows the disparate toll that this problem takes on poor black children.
So why does the cat have his tongue?
Enough with people making excuses for his silence on race: He’ll just upset the “white man,” some say. Or he’s not the president of black America.
But there has never been a good reason why the nation’s first black president had to be so reticent about race — having uttered fewer words on the subject during his first two years in office than any Democratic president since 1961, according to a study by Daniel Gillion at the University of Pennsylvania.
On Monday, gay rights activists hailed Obama as courageous for being the first president to use the word “gay” in an inaugural address. Apparently, it takes more gumption than he can muster to say the word “black.”
And yet, if racism in this country is so bad that Obama dares not broach the subject, what effect does he think this backlash is having on everyday black people? Does Obama know that he is being used by whites as proof that racism in America no longer exists? Forget racial discrimination in the workplace; it can’t happen in the country that has a black president.
Obama’s silence makes him complicit in this lie.
I’m not asking Obama to whine about racism but to talk about its corrosive effect on the country and what can be done to eradicate it. Pretending that it does not exist does not make it go away. Obama should not be allowed to get away with thinking that when it comes to making his mark on the issue of race, all he had to do was become the first black president.
At both his official and public swearing-in, Obama used Bibles that belonged to Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. But you’d never know from his inaugural address that either one of those men had anything to do with race. Of King, he said only this: “. . . to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
That’s pretty thin gruel for an inauguration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
For those who say that America is suffering from “race fatigue,” it’s not the subject that’s so wearisome. It’s the racism itself. What we saw during the past presidential campaign was a debilitating throwback to the Jim Crow era, with otherwise respectable white people using thinly veiled and sometimes blatantly racist tactics to try to tear Obama down.
But when powerful people behave as if they would rather see the country go bankrupt than have a black man in the White House, Obama can’t just let that pass without comment.
“Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” Obama said in speech in 2008. Then let’s not.
In announcing his “Why We Can’t Wait” initiative in 2011, Obama was appropriating King’s urgent call for racial justice. But when it came to actually addressing the issues that the civil rights leader was talking about — a high black unemployment rate, an unfair criminal justice system, and the “mis-education” of black children in separate and unequal school systems — wait we did. And we still are waiting.
How can Obama talk about protecting children “from the streets of Detroit,” as he did in his inaugural address, when he won’t go to such streets —not even the ones in the District where he lives? Not out of fear of getting shot, but more like fear of appearing to favor blacks over whites.
Obama is not clueless, just calculating.
His father may have been “dark as pitch” and his mother “white as milk,” as Obama described them in one of his books, but he did not grow up to become the nation’s first café au lait president.
Obama, as his memoir reveals, learned much about the complexities of race while stylizing his persona as a cool and brainy black man. Now he needs to tell us what he has learned about race and racism during the past four years as the nation’s first black president.
Or at least tell us why he won’t.
Courtland Milloy is a Washington Post columnist.