In 2008, Obama was optimistic on race. Today showed he’s changed.

July 19, 2013

What stands out today in Barack Obama's 2008 speech on race is the optimism. It was a speech by a candidate who believe that there were words and policies and conversations that could help heal old and deep wounds.

(EPA/Michael Reynolds)
(EPA/Michael Reynolds)

That day in Philadelphia, he told his story, "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." He spoke of remedies, arguing that the legacy of racism needed to be addressed "by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations." He said we had a choice to "accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism" or to strive toward something greater.

"What we have already achieved gives us hope -- the audacity to hope -- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow," he said.

President Obama's remarks on race today were eloquent, personal, thoughtful and calm. There was no soaring rhetoric and few soundbite-ready lines. There wasn't a prepared text on the lectern before him, or teleprompters feeding words into the air in front of him. The president just got up and ... talked.

Perhaps because the words were truly his own, and the format was so honest, Obama's remarks carried a deep pessimism that was absent in the Philadelphia speech. That was a speech by a candidate who believe America was ready to be brought together. This was a speech by a president who believed his words could very easily tear the country apart. This was a speech that left little role for policy and that accepted that we do have a politics "that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism" -- and even the president needs to tread carefully around it.

The speech had two distinct threads. In one, Obama spoke only with the authority of his own experiences -- experiences that include being followed in department stores and feared in elevators. "When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son," he said. "Another way of saying that is: Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."

That thread was radical, and it was confident, and it was clear. In that part of the speech, Obama didn't apologize or soften his message. "Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear," he said.

But in the other thread, Obama spoke as the president of the United States, imbued with all the extraordinary powers of that office -- and here, he was far more tentative. He said that issues of law and order are traditionally "issues of state and local government." He repeatedly assured the country that he would tread that boundary carefully. "We’re not rolling out some five-point plan," he promised. When he did get to the policy ideas, he framed them carefully, saying, "There are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive."

"If state and local governments are receptive" is a far cry from "what we can and must achieve tomorrow."

Obama spoke of the "need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys," but just as quickly backed away from doing, or even hinting, anything big. "I’m not naive about the prospects of some brand-new federal program," he said.

He was even cautious about simply calling for a broader conversation on these issues. "I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations," he said. He appeared tragically aware of how quickly that conversation could turn divisive. "Those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions," he warned.

In 2008, Obama seemed to believe that with the right leadership, America was ready to move forward on race. "We are the ones we have been waiting for," he said. In 2013, he seemed to believe political leaders might simply make matters worse, and that, on this issue at least, we are not the ones we have been waiting for. The ones we are waiting for, he seemed to say, are still coming.

"Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race," he said in the most optimistic segment of his remarks. "It doesn’t mean that we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are."

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Timothy B. Lee · July 19, 2013