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.
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.
The first was by Eric Holder shortly after he became the nation’s first black Attorney General.
Speaking to Justice Department employees as part of the department’s Black History Month program, Holder said, “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”
“Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race,” he continued. “It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.”
Shirley Sherrod in the spotlight
Watched in its entirety – not just the controversial snippet posted by an incendiary conservative blogger – it’s a remarkable story of redemption by a black woman whose father was killed by a white man in the segregated South where such crimes often went unprosecuted.
Looking back at the civil rights movement, the Virginia Democrat (one of the more thoughtful lawmakers) argues that “a plethora of government-enforced diversity policies have marginalized many white workers.”
“In an odd historical twist that all Americans see but few can understand, many programs allow recently arrived immigrants to move ahead of similarly situated whites whose families have been in the country for generations,” he writes. “These programs have damaged racial harmony. And the more they have grown, the less they have actually helped African-Americans, the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action as it was originally conceived.”
A deep discussion on race between President Obama, Eric Holder, Shirley Sherrod, and James Webb. Now that would be a teachable moment.