A social media friend privately posed the question “How do you think that the President’s press conference spoke to, or affected race relations in this country?” I believe Barack Obama’s response to the Trayvon Martin verdict galvanized existing opinions on each side. I don’t think he built any bridges on July 19th, 2013, but considering the fact that he has remained largely silent and mostly neutral on issues of race, it’s a thing of note that he expressed an opinion. Many African Americans are frustrated that it took him this long to acknowledge the black experience in America, and many non-blacks are disappointed that he made an issue of his race.
President Obama may not have built bridges during his speech, but he did suggest that we as citizens, family members, employees, and law enforcement professionals move toward building bridges and restoring trust. Many people on both sides of the racial divide are frustrated, disappointed, and deeply hurt by the state of our nation and the conversation that just won’t quit.
I think it was important for the President to state an opinion, and for the sake of future race relations, expressing an opinion from the first person perspective was critical. Black men are not, by and large, the most highly respected or understood demographic in America. The fact that we elected one is historic, and it makes sense for the President to try to explain how a huge minority population in the United States might perceive the case and the verdict precisely because he has the attention of most of the known universe. I say “might perceive” because there are African Americans who do not share the sentiments expressed by Barack Obama. Many white people are staying silent to avoid racially charged flare-ups, but others are declaring that racism is over and the President was out of line.
That said, I think I understand some of why people on both sides are annoyed. “The POTUS should remain neutral” is an oft repeated sentiment. Total neutrality seems like a great idea when taken at face value, but impossible for an human being in reality.
Racism is a wicked problem that has persisted for hundreds of years. It would be irresponsible for the first person of color elected President not to speak up on the issue. Leaders have a responsibility to illuminate the darkness wherever and whenever they can. President Barack Obama was faced with the arduous task of addressing one of the ugliest skeletons in our nation’s closet. Most of us know it’s there, but many of us don’t want to or don’t know how to talk about it, especially in mixed company. President Obama took an important step by modeling the behavior we need to help us heal. He contributed his personal experience and thoughts on a vital national dialogue.
Race relations are not as good as they should or could be in our country, likely because people don’t have an honest view of our shared history or a holistic view of our collective present experience. Americans often don’t know (and sometimes, don’t care) how ‘the other’ is living….the other race, class, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability…..many of us are incredibly self-preoccupied and self-important.
Barack Obama posed some challenging race questions like whether a white teenager in Trayvon’s place would have elicited the same social and judicial response. He spoke truthfully by courageously noting that black men, his own demographic, are disproportionately incarcerated and statistically more likely to engage in violence. He spoke of the nearly universal experiences of African American males as victims of scrutiny and mistrust. Some people won’t believe it, but it was important for a man of his social and political stature to claim the experience from a first-hand perspective. If you doubt the truth of his assertions, please engage in honest dialogue with people who might know better: black men. I am not a black man, but I am acquainted with and related to a multitude of them. I can’t think of any black men I know in America who disagree with the experiences Barack Obama described. Black men in majority black nations are the only ones I know who consistently describe a different set of experiences.
I am glad that President Obama suggested trust-building opportunities for communities and law enforcement, and race dialogues in “families, churches and workplaces” because while laws may outlaw segregation, many of us still have few authentic relationships with people who are different from us. Trust has been broken across racial lines and it can be repaired with a little care and deliberate effort.