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. “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.”
And yet, from Obama’s introduction to the national stage that night in Boston to today, as the country’s eyes turn toward the ongoing racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., the president’s relationship with the issue of race has been far more complicated — and fraught — than he could have 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 his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic 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 that the Obamas attended in Chicago, became a major issue in early 2008 when some of his controversial remarks came to light. At first, Obama sought to play down both Wright’s comments and his relationship with the preacher. But as the brush fire grew into a five-alarm blaze, 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, echoing his words from 2004.
The address 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 became president, his endeavor to defuse racial controversies in the country — either by word or by deed — became significantly more difficult.
In the summer of 2009, Obama was quick to comment on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates as he attempted to enter his own home, saying that police had “acted stupidly” in the incident. After an outcry from the police community,Obama backed off of his initial comments and eventually convened the decidedly hokey “beer summit” among Gates, the arresting officer, himself and Vice President Biden.
The Gates episode quite clearly influenced Obama’s approach to other national controversies tied to race. In March 2012, as his reelection bid ramped up, he briefly addressed the controversy over Trayvon Martin, an African American youth who had been fatally shot by a man named George Zimmerman in Florida. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said, although he was 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 Martin’s death more fully.
In that speech, Obama spoke candidly from his 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.”
On the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager fatally shot more than a week ago in Ferguson, Mo., Obama first issued a 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, he delivered a measured statement from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., 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 seems to play a role makes perfect sense. As president — and particularly as the country’s first African American president — his words carry huge weight. He and his team know that and want to do everything they can to help calm situations while 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 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. He has repeatedly and eloquently spoken about race — and his experiences in making his way in the world as the son of a white mother and a Kenyan father — over the past decade. But those words have done little to heal the racial wounds in the country. Perhaps it’s too much to expect any one individual, 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.