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The President’s Take on Race in America

July 21, 2013

April Yvonne Garrett authored a thoughtful response to President Obama’s remarks on the death of Trayvon Martin. Like Garrett, I fail to be as moved by the President’s remarks as many of my peers, though I desperately want to be moved. But I agree with Ta-nehisi Coates that the President’s remarks are significant— for the first time in our history, we have a President able to not only empathize, but experience the anguish expressed by large swaths of black Americans.

Still, we–and I don’t simply mean black Americans–deserve more. Charles Ogletree, President Obama’s esteemed Harvard University law professor, reminds us that Barack Obama is not president of Black America, but a President who happens to be black. This is a disappointing assessment, as it defines racism and racial inequality as issues only of concern to the African-American community, and not as far-reaching evils that retard America’s potential of becoming a more perfect union.

A few passages I’d like to highlight from the President’s speech:

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.

And:

I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. 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.

Finally:

Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.  It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society.  It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated.  But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues.  And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

While it’s true that personal attitudes on race have evolved for the better over time, we continue to perpetuate (and justify) racial inequities by codifying prejudices into public policy. Stop-and-frisk programs, for example, ensure that suspicion will always follow black men, the sort of suspicion President Obama laments in his remarks. It’s one thing to ask Americans to be introspective on matters of race, it’s another thing entirely to challenge and condemn racialized (racist) public policies.

Even the 2003 Illinois racial profiling legislation authored by then state Senator Barack Obama–and referenced in his recent remarks–focused much more on racial biases potentially held by individual law enforcement officers. Now, however, President Obama praises the man described by Ta-nehisi Coates as the “proprietor of the largest local racial profiling operation in the country.”

President Obama had an opportunity to not only revisit America’s “difficult” and ugly past, but to address its troubling present. How can we ask the American people to wring themselves of bias, when the state continues to sanction it?

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