President Obama should talk about race in America more often
The most surprising thing about President Obama asserting in a recent New Yorker interview, “there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president” is that he said it. Surely, the assertion itself is almost mundane. The pool of Americans who don’t like the idea of a black president is large enough to have its own t-shirt market. And that market is larger than you’d think: about 1.5 million Americans openly admit to pollsters that they will not vote for a black president.
It’s the “openly” that’s a problem, of course. That, and the strong possibility that Obama was not referring to just those 1.5 million, but to some larger percentage of the 51% of Americans who disapprove of the job he’s doing – a group that, statistically speaking, can’t just consist of avowed racists. But who was he talking about?
One thing is for sure: none of the people he’s talking about will change their minds now; even more distressing, they probably don’t know that their minds need changing.
White critics don’t question Obama’s role as a racial ambassador when he poses as the disappointed elder. His has critiqued black men repeatedly, for years, especially young black fathers, for participating in a culture of resentment and insolence. In his commencement address to the all-male, historically black Morehouse College, he put it bluntly:
[W]hatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured – and overcame.
He also has made a connection between gun violence and absent fathers that would not sound out of place coming from Glenn Beck, or the National Rifle Association’s frontman Wayne LaPierre:
When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.
In general, Obama has been so critical of the black community that many progressive black columnists and pundits find it a troubling pattern. “Historians will pore over his many speeches to black audiences,” wrote Ta-Nahisi Coates at The Atlantic, and “they will see a president who sought to hold black people accountable for their communities, but was disdainful of those who looked at him and sought the same”.
Of course, when it’s deemed fit to accuse Obama of “race-baiting”, or when the virtues of his domestic policy agenda are criticized as “give-aways” or “reparations”, those moments where he offered his own most searing criticism are conveniently forgotten.
That is probably way he has rarely talked about racism in an explicitly personal way; off the top of my head, I can think of only three occasions: at a Democratic primary debate in 2007, he made a joke about hailing cabs in New York City. It was in a response to a question about being “authentically black”. Remember when that was a thing we worried about?
And last year, in his most memorable revelation, he made the disquieting observation, “Trayvon Martin could have been me.” Few seemed prepared to question his authentic blackness then. But that was almost beside the point. Obama meant to call attention to Trayvon Martin’s unknowable potential (how many future presidents, future Nobel prize winners, future mothers and fathers have we lost to pointless racial violence?) and to his own good fortune. Instead, critics treated it as an ego move, as if it were Obama that injected politics into the Zimmerman trial, and not another kind of politics that kept Zimmerman from being arrested promptly in the first place.
In another example I’m thinking of, the racism originated with Obama’s family: “my own white grandmother”. His 2008 post-Reverend Wright controversy “race speech” (sometimes known as the “more perfect union” speech)included her as a counterexample to the radical black triumphalism of Wright. She “once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street,” he confided, “and … on more than one occasion … uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
It felt like a stretch to hold up poor Madelyn Dunham’s kitchen-table confidences as the equivalent of Wright’s bombastic sermons. Obama just drafted Madelyn in the service of making his rhetoric more palatable: “See, we all make mistakes!” But he wasn’t scraping the bottom of the anecdotal barrel for Grandma Dunham’s subtle aspersions, he was actually making a representative claim: much as Reverend Wright is an appropriate spokesman for a certain strain of black racism, Madelyn Dunham is the face for that of most whites. Now, which is more difficult to address? Which is more difficult to stamp out? When a black preacher makes sweeping pronouncements about whites, that’s clearly racism; when your relative whispers about a stereotype whose roots go back as far as the preacher’s rage, well, that’s just grandma.
The degree to which white racism has been driven into whispers, and, worse, habit, is evident when Americans are polled about racism: more people, black and white, say that “most blacks are racist” than “most whites are racist”. Among all Americans, 37% say that “most blacks are racist”, 15% say that “most whites” are. Split by race, there’s only a seven-point difference in the percentage that describes “most blacks” as racist: 38% of whites, 31% of blacks.
I don’t think this is because black people are truly more racist; I just think they’re more candid about it – and they are able to recognize it. History has taught them to. They know the way they talk amongst themselves, they know their Rev Wrights and they know their grudge-filled relatives, and when those people say things that are racist, everyone knows that’s racism. What’s more, when white people hear about those comments, they recognize it as racism.
What’s startling is the breakdown for white racism. Among blacks, 15% say most whites are racist. Among whites, 10% say most whites are racist. In that context, Obama’s remarks seem even less controversial, and perhaps even disturbingly blasé.
But even taking those findings at face value, I think black America might be giving the rest of us a pass: I think of all of the statistics that show the dismal chances of a black child breaking out of the cycle of poverty. I think of how our schools are more segregated today than they were 30 years ago. I think of the disproportionate casualties of the drug war. I think of the health outcome studies that show such shocking statistics as black children having a 500% higher death rate from asthma than white children, and that in general black infants are twice as likely to die than white infants.
Black America, may blame white America for its troubles in some generalized way, but, concretely, a lot of African Americans seem to realize that whatever is happening to their people, it’s not because white people are explicitly racist in their everyday affairs, even though some of us, maybe even 10%, are. But we are less racist than we used to be; polls show that over and over. Black people’s struggles continue anyway, because of a terrible history with lingering consequences, and an imperfect system of redress that requires constant vigilance and hard work to be kept from slipping back into devastating inequality. Sometimes someone needs to remind the rest of us of that. I wish that the president could it more often.