“We have a choice in this country,” Obama said that day. “We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the O.J. trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. . . .That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’ "
But in the year since that speech – through campaign and convention, election and inauguration – Barack Obama hasn’t taken part in the discussion of race in America in any sustained way, the way he did that day in Philadelphia to get out of a campaign jam.
Obama supporters have defended this approach as “post-racial” — moving beyond clear lines of black and white, and the tired racial fights of years past to embrace a new way of solving problems broadly, not one ethnic group at a time.
Rep. Barbara Lee, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the speech was a benchmark that “set forth a road map on how to look at race within the context of public policy.”
But it’s an approach that leaves some of Obama’s black supporters wanting more – and some analysts saying Obama’s method is something of a cop-out, in a nation where racial questions still burn every day. It was Obama’s own attorney general Eric Holder, in fact, who said the U.S is a “nation of cowards” on race.
“If there’s an attitude of ‘it’s not that important, let’s just get people back working.’ that idea hinges on the fact that you can get that far without talking about race, which I don’t buy,” said Marc Lamont Hill, an assistant professor at Temple University who believes a discussion of race and discrimination has to be a part of Obama’s economic policy.
“Even if you stimulate the economy, and create jobs, the reality is if your name is Shaheem and not Michael, you might not get a call-back,” Hill said. “You have to talk about the ways race continues to trump merit.”
The White House declined to answer why Obama hasn’t spoken more, and more directly about race in light of the speech. But speaking more generally, his closest aides in the White House say Obama’s approach fits perfectly with his overall approach to race, both personally and on the campaign trail. They say that anyone expecting that Obama would talk repeatedly in racial terms, or be a kind of stern black father figure, in the mold of Bill Cosby, pointing up the ills of black America, will be disappointed.
The presidential bully pulpit isn’t likely to be regularly used that way, they say.
“Because he is the first African-American president, that achievement resonates more deeply with African Americans,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama and one of his closest aides. “We met with the [Congressional Black Caucus] and he talked about the importance of nutrition and weight control because obesity is a huge challenge in the black community and it’s easier for an African-American to say that than someone who isn’t. It’s easier for him to say pull up your pants.”
But so far, as president, he hasn’t waded into any of those discussions, preferring instead to simply serve as a kind of uber role model -- something Michelle Obama has embraced too, acknowledging that she gives African-American women a different sort of dream to aspire to.
“He’s made it cool to speak well, to work hard and commit your life to public service. He’s a tangible example of the American dream,” Jarrett said. “Because African-Amercans haven’t had that before, it resonates deeply.”
Others on Obama’s team are more direct, “I feel responsibility and obligation to serve the president and the nation and black people certainly are part of this county, The issues we work on certainly have an impact on the African-American community but the black staff isn’t having a conversation every day to figure out how to serve black people,” said Cassandra Butts, who is Deputy White House Counsel, and went to Harvard Law with Obama.
On Capitol Hill, some black Democrats say they have been surprised the nation’s racial conversation hasn’t come further since that day in Philadelphia, or that day in Washington two months ago when Obama took the oath of office.
They don’t blame Obama – and in fact, say he’s got so much on his plate fixing the economy that it’s not realistic for him to lead a deeper national conversation about race.
“We are talking about everything except race,” said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of Obama’s strongest supporters, told POLITICO. “The moment the issue of race comes up, we want everyone to stop talking. It seems to me all of us know full well that all of us are going to have to come face to face with it. It seems we ought to be able to talk about it without being accused of being racist.”
“I suspected that people would be less sensitive after electing an African American president,” Clyburn said. “It has not changed the way” people talk about race.
Should Obama speak of race more directly?
“From time to time, I think it would be a good thing,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). “And I think from time to time he will. But right now his main focus is trying to straighten out the difficult circumstances he inherited…. In time, he will address the issue of race.”
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said he’s less worried about what Obama says about race and is focused on his policies, which so far, he said, are going in the right direction. “We are eager to have a conversation. We are just more eager to see progress made on specific policy, changes made in people’s lives,” he said.
But even without Obama, the nation’s conversation over race has continued, sometimes at a feverish pitch. There have been controversies over cartoons – one showing the writer of the stimulus bill as a monkey, and the other of the White House lawn planted with watermelons. Clyburn suggested that his state’s governor’s rejection of the economic stimulus bill had racial overtones. And then there were Holder’s words.
To be sure, Obama has spoken about race since being elected president – though often to black interviewers from black publications, like Ebony or Black Enterprise. He gave his most expansive answer on his view of race to the New York Times two Sundays ago, in rebuking Holder on the “cowards” comment. During the campaign, he gave a Father’s Day speech where he called on black fathers to be present in their children’s lives.
And when he does speak of race, he does it much in the way he did in the Philadelphia speech: saying that education, health care, and the economy are “problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.”
In the Times’ interview, he made said that Americans are “often times uncomfortable with talking about race until there is some sort of racial flare-up or conflict.” He also said that he wasn’t among those that believe that “constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions.”
“I think what solves racial tensions is fixing the economy, putting people to work, making sure that people have health care, ensuring that every kid is learning out here,” he said. &lduo;I think if we do that, then we’ll probably have more fruitful conversations.”
Jarrett and other aides say that Obama is mindful of, yet not preoccupied with, what it means to be the first black president.
“I think if he is going about his job in the way that he already is and doing the best job for all of America, he will naturally ensure that African-Americans and people of all races are addressed,” said Melody Barnes, head of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council. “The problem comes in when people are too narrowly focused and we know that isn’t the M.O. of this president.”