Where is Obama's 'teachable moment' on race?
President Obama has not dwelt on race – his own or the history of racism in America. And for all the talk about 'teachable moments,' he has not encouraged a deep national discussion of the issue.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Shirley Sherrod. The minister, the professor, the civil servant. All black, each a flash point for race in America. And each a distraction for the first black US president.Skip to next paragraph
Since taking office, President Obama has not dwelt on race – his own or the history of race and racism in America. He has not reacted to the racial jibes by some conservative commentators and some in the “tea party” movement. And for all the talk about “teachable moments,” he has not encouraged (let alone led) a deep national discussion of the issue.
That’s understandable. Race should not enter into the politics of health care reform, economic recovery, energy policy, or how to clean up a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
As Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter said on NPR the other day: “About a month after he became president, he was asked if he thought a lot about the history involved of being the first African-American president. And he said he did for about a day.”
Rather, with each of the above cases, Obama has found himself having to respond – and as more information about the Gates and Sherrod episodes was revealed, reverse course.
Obama's major speech on race
The closest he’s come to talking fulsomely about race was in March 2008, when then-Senator Obama running for president gave his “A More Perfect Union” speech at Constitution Center in Philadelphia. There, he rebuked Rev. Wright for his former pastor’s most incendiary statements while also putting Wright’s anger into a broader – and therefore more politically-acceptable – context.
“In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community,” he said, segueing neatly from race to class. “Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they're concerned, no one handed them anything. They built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away.”
For the most part, it had the desired effect of taking race out of the campaign discussion – except for the bigots who never would be placated or for some who suggested that Obama was “not black enough” because his mother was white and he was not descended from slaves (as his wife and daughters are).
There have been two other important speeches on race – both more thought-provoking, perhaps even challenging.