I tried to explain my frustration with having to always choose between an all-black experience or being the “only one,” whether at work, in grad school or even out for a night in New York. I waited for a nod of sympathy; instead, my best friend threw her hands up and said: “How can we all be racist? Look at who is president!”
I didn’t have a response.
Right now the nation has embarked on a massive conversation about race surrounding the tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. On Friday, President Obama weighed in. “I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out: How does something like this happen?” he said.
It’s an important conversation to have — but I fear it won’t lead anywhere. After all, we’ve seen plenty of these debates in recent years, invariably prompted by some tragedy or controversy. Think Troy Davis. Or Shirley Sherrod. Or Jeremiah Wright. Or Henry Louis Gates Jr. Or even Rodney King. We have big debates over racial prejudice and disparities in this country, and then nothing happens.
I thought things would be different by now. The Trayvon Martin story flared up exactly four years after Obama’s famous campaign speech on race in Philadelphia, a speech that made so many of us believe that Obama would launch a serious, enduring dialogue. But the election of the first black president hasn’t made it easier to talk about race in America. It’s made it harder.
Obama’s measured words on Friday only highlighted how removed the president seems from the candidate who gave that stirring speech on race four years ago. Obama was asked directly about “allegations of lingering racism in our society,” but he shied away. He rightly used caution in talking about a case that the Justice Department is investigating, and he offered a moving sentiment for Martin’s parents, saying, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” But he hasn’t grappled with this tragedy, or with racial disparities and divisions, along with us, guiding us in a way that only he can — as the commander in chief, as a lawyer, as a community leader and as a black man.
The Obama presidency is “post-racial” only in the sense that it gives us an excuse not to grapple with race anymore.
As I sat at my desk in a newsroom four years ago, Obama’s speech captivated me. Here was a politician who embraced his biracial heritage but also understood how tough it can be to navigate 21st-century America as a black person. A man who lived multiculturalism as much in his private life as his public life and could relate to what it was like to have someone who loved him dearly — his white grandmother — make comments about race that made him cringe.