As the reaction continues to the president’s surprise remarks today about the George Zimmerman verdict, the racial profiling of young black men, and the “experiences and history” of racial discrimination that too many white folks want to consign to the distant past, I’m reminded of what Paul Glastris wrote about Obama in the Editor’s Note to the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, which focused on reviving discussion of America’s troubled record on race:
On the eve of Obama’s second inauguration, a day that falls almost exactly 150 years after the [Emancipation] Proclamation went into effect, we thought it appropriate to devote this issue of the magazine to the subjects of race, history, and the condition of minorities in America today. For while it is true that Obama, as measured by his November vote totals, retains the overwhelming support of Americans of color, that support was accompanied by yet another political compromise. America, it seemed, would reelect its first black president, but only if he didn’t talk about race.
Obama mentioned race fewer times in his first two years in office than any Democratic president since 1961, according to a study by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Daniel Gillon. When he has talked about it, it often has not gone well. When he said last year that if he had a son, “he would look like Trayvon” Martin, the young man who was killed tragically in Florida, he provoked a fierce backlash, not only from the predictable sources—Rush Limbaugh and the National Review—but also from more moderate groups that had previously condemned Martin’s killing. Obama’s simple expression of sympathy became instantaneously polarizing, a political liability both to himself and to those who would advocate for black issues. Perhaps chastened by the experience, Obama has since returned to his tried-and-true strategy of assiduously avoiding the topic of race.
This politically imposed cone of silence around the president makes it all the more difficult for the nation to acknowledge and confront discrimination in our society—and if you doubt such a thing still exists, consider the eight-hour lines this past fall at some polling stations in minority neighborhoods in Ohio and Florida after Republican-led governments narrowed early-voting laws. Or consider the AFL-CIO-sponsored poll showing that nationwide, 24 percent of Latino voters and 22 percent of African Americans waited longer than thirty minutes to vote in November, while only 9 percent of whites did.
The don’t-talk-about-race stricture also makes it hard for the country to have an honest conversation about the many realms of American life in which minorities suffer disproportionately—even if overt discrimination isn’t the driving cause. Nearly all Americans lost significant wealth in the Great Recession, but as a percentage of income blacks and Hispanics lost far more. Modern health scourges like obesity and diabetes are hitting all of America hard but African Americans harder. Our China-like rates of incarceration are slowly beginning to trouble the consciences of the opinion-making class, but they have long been a devastating reality in the lives of black families, where every third father or son is, has been, or someday will be behind bars.
Well, Obama has now breached the “politically imposed cone of silence” about race, and if his remarks today are any indication, he won’t fall silent in the immediate future. I get the sense he couldn’t overcome a feeling of obligation to explain how the Martin/Zimmerman case felt to African-Americans based on experiences that he, the most powerful man on the planet, shared. I’m sure he understands, as he always had, the furies his comments will unleash among those who unaccountably think of him as always dwelling on race, presumably because he refuses to deny racism and its consequences persist. But it will be most interesting to see where this “conversation” will lead him and the country.
Perhaps he will, as he indicated at one point today, simply encourage Americans to “do some soul-searching,” and have honest conversations “in families and churches and workplaces.” Maybe he’ll go a step further and talk about the irrationality of laws which not only encouraged George Zimmerman to kill Trayvon Martin, but which might, as Obama pointed out, have allowed Trayvon Martin to kill George Zimmerman had he been carrying a gun himself. Maybe he’ll use the whole episode to push back against racially-motivated voter suppression efforts (which have been legion in Florida), or to revive enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, or to review a justice system that incarcerates so many young black men for non-violent acts.
I don’t know what the president will do, but I’d guess he is probably relieved that circumstances forced him to speak instead of leaving office with the “cone of silence” intact.