WASHINGTON - Try as he might, President Barack Obama can’t elude the nation’s complicated racial passions. For plainly obvious reasons, this president will be judged as none before him on how well he helps the nation grapple with the prickly passions that arise when Americans confront matters involving race. So far, Obama seems mistakenly resolute in avoiding any explicit effort on this front.
Yet another “teachable moment” seems to be going by without any lessons learned in the continuing aftermath of the unwarranted firing of a U.S. Agriculture Department staffer. There have been other moments as well, going back to the 2008 campaign’s flap over Rev. Jeremiah Wright sermons to last year’s “beer summit” after the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Even when the president or his policies are the targets of mean-spirited racist campaigns—such as the debate over health care reform, placard-carrying protesters at Tea Party rallies, or foolish court challenges regarding his nationality—he has swallowed hard and held his temper in check, forsaking an opportunity to personally lead the nation to a fact-based understanding of the continuing role that race plays in the affairs and thoughts of average Americans.
The reason for Obama’s silence is clear. Taken at his own word, the president views his job as serving all Americans. He refuses to be labeled as the president of “black America” or any other special interest group, arguing that what is good for the nation will benefit everyone.
He’s correct, of course, but it doesn’t stop his critics. A significant number of Americans believe Obama’s policies are intended to help blacks and other minorities, while expressly aimed at crippling white Americans. Such fears received a lift when Virginia Sen. James Webb erroneously argued in a Wall Street Journal opinion article that continuing affirmative action programs are harming whites.
So when these racial incidents and falsehoods flare—often ginned up by opportunistic right-wing activists and spread by too eager radio and television entertainers—the president’s staff goes into overdrive to keep Obama out of the spotlight in the vain hope that he can rise above it all to handle more important business.
But there is no more pressing national business than the unfinished racial issues that daily confound Americans. Obama’s approach is worse than missing opportunities—it’s a gross miscalculation, one that ultimately may take its toll on the president’s reputation. By avoiding direct confrontation with those groups and individuals who are eager to inflame racial passions to their advantage, the president cedes them too much power.
So what’s Obama to do? Should he convene a national conference on race, as some, including the Congressional Black Caucus, have urged? I don’t think so formal an approach is necessary or needed. No, all it would take is for this president, who carries incredible clout and awareness of the nation’s racial challenges, to speak up in a clear, commanding, and factually correct voice to denounce any and all of his critics whenever they use race to divide the nation for political purposes.
Sure, political risk is involved. It’s easy to anticipate the racial inversion strategy of his critics in their effort to silence Obama. They will accuse the president of being the one to play the race card or using racism as a shield against legitimate criticism of his policies. But so what? They’re doing it anyway, often with lies as their only proof. Worse, the White House lets them off without so much as a fact-laden argument to push back.
Enough. It’s past time for President Obama to stand before the nation, repeatedly if necessary, to call out any and all race-baiting critics as the bullies that they are.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of polices on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.
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