President Obama’s vision of post-racial America faces another stress test with Ferguson


President Obama (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

The speech that made Barack Obama famous cast him as a post-racial figure offering a vision of America no longer divided along black and white lines.

"I stand here today grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents' dreams live on in my two precious daughters," Obama, then an Illinois state senator, said in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, adding: "I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible." Later, in perhaps the most quoted and quotable line of that speech, Obama insisted: "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

And yet, from Obama's introduction to the national stage that night in Boston to today, as the country's collective eyes turn toward the ongoing racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., the president's relationship to the issue of race has been far more complicated — and fraught — than he could have possibly imagined on that night a decade ago.  Obama was careful, particularly during his 2008 campaign, not to cast himself as a black man running for president but rather as a man running for president who just happened to be black. (He never used the words "black" or "African American" during the entirety of his 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.)

For Obama, the reality of just how hard it would be to be a post-racial politician hit home in the form of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright, a pastor at the church the Obamas attended in Chicago, became a major issue in spring 2008 when some of his controversial remarks came to light.  At first, Obama sought to downplay both Wright's comments and his relationship with him. But as the brushfire grew into a five-alarm fire, Obama responded with what, to my mind, is the single best speech he has ever given.

"I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible," Obama said in that speech, delivered at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. "It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one."

That speech effectively quelled the Wright controversy — John McCain's campaign cut an ad featuring Wright but never ran it — and took race, at least as a public-facing issue in the campaign, off the table.

But once Obama actually became president, his ability to defuse racial controversies in the country — either by word or deed — became significantly more difficult.

In summer 2009, Obama was quick to comment on an incident involving the arrest of Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates as he attempted to enter his own home — saying that the police had "acted stupidly" in the incident. Following an outcry from the police community, Obama backed off of his initial comments and eventually convened the decidedly hokey "beer summit" between Gates, the arresting officer, himself and Vice President Biden.

The Gates episode quite clearly influenced Obama's approach to other national issues with a racial tinge as his presidency continued. In March 2012, as his reelection bid ramped up, Obama briefly addressed the ongoing controversy over Trayvon Martin, an African American youth, who was shot and killed by a man named George Zimmerman in Florida. "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Obama said, although he was very careful not to wade much deeper into the incident — citing a desire not to interfere in the ongoing legal proceedings. It wasn't until more than a year later — in July 2013 — that Obama addressed the death of Martin more fully. In that speech, Obama spoke candidly from his own personal experience:

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.

On the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed last week in Ferguson, Obama has, to date, issued only a single, paragraph-long statement that read in part:

I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding.  We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.  Along with our prayers, that’s what Michael and his family, and our broader American community, deserve.

On Thursday, Obama delivered a measured statement from Martha;s Vineyard, urging calm. "I'd like us all to take a step back and think about how we will be moving forward," he said.

On one level, Obama's decision to watch and wait on high-profile incidents in which race seemed to play a role makes perfect sense.  As president — and particularly as the country's first African American president — his words carry tons of weight.  He and his team know that and want to do everything they can to help calm situations while also allowing those in charge on the local level to do their jobs. At the same time, Obama is caught between a genuine — and much-expressed — desire to use his own unique experiences to move the country beyond its divisive racial past and the realities on the ground, which suggest we aren't in that post-racial America just yet.

In many ways, Obama's difficulty in navigating matters of race as president mirrors his struggles in other areas as well. He has repeatedly and eloquently spoken about race — and his own experiences in navigating the world as the son of a white woman and a Kenyan father — over the past decade. But those words have done little to heal the racial wounds that exist in the country. Perhaps it's too much to expect for anyone — even the president — to help finally close such a deep and long-standing gash on the country's conscience. But such is the historic nature of Obama's presidency that many people — both white and black — expect him to do just that.

Today at least, Obama's vision of a post-racial America looks even further away than it did that night a decade ago in Boston.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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