Top Officials Expand The Dialogue on Race

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009

When the country's racial chasms seemed to threaten President Obama's election, his team had to tread carefully. A month into his administration, the tone has changed. Top officials are engaging the subject of race more freely, with a boldness and confidence they once shunned.

With the federal government's annual African American History Month celebrations as a backdrop, the attorney general, the first lady and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency spoke more frankly about race recently than any of Obama's surrogates did during the hard-fought campaign.

Lisa P. Jackson, the EPA administrator and a native of New Orleans, told her staff about having grown up in an area where she would have had to drink from unsafe water fountains because of her race. "Now in 2009, I am, along with you, responsible for ensuring that all Americans have clean water to drink," Jackson said. "Change has certainly come to this agency."

First lady Michelle Obama hosted middle-schoolers in the White House East Room and taught the children about African Americans and their roles in the executive mansion: the slaves who built it, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation there, the meetings held with civil rights leaders.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who ignited the most debate, used his Feb. 18 address as an admonition that "to get to the heart of this country, one must examine its racial soul."

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Holder said. "Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race."

The plain talk may be an attempt to expand the racial dialogue Obama called for during his speech on the subject in Philadelphia last year, but whether Americans want to go there remains unanswered. White House officials said the African American History Month celebrations were choreographed across the federal government. Reaction so far has been mixed.

Holder has been rebuked by some who contend that with Obama's election, the country proved its willingness to move beyond the color line. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd likened Holder's remarks at the Justice Department's African American History Month program to a lecture on race by Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. "Barack Obama's election was supposed to get us past that," she wrote.

Jen Singer, author of "You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either)," wrote on the Web site that "Michelle Obama could talk all she wanted about Black History Month, slavery and segregation, but no words could better illustrate to today's schoolchildren how far this country has come than her presence as First Lady."

There is a risk in talking about it too much, said Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, in an e-mail. During his campaign, Obama made an explicit decision not to emphasize race and did so only when it threatened to damage his candidacy. Changing course now could make some feel uncomfortable.

Nearly six in 10 Americans said Obama's presidency will do more to help race relations in this country, according to a January Washington Post-ABC News poll. But whites and African Americans start out with widely divergent views on the racial climate in the country. Overall, about three-quarters of those surveyed called racism a problem in society today, with one-quarter labeling it a "big" problem. Twice as many blacks (44 percent) as whites (22 percent) called it a big problem.

"They definitely have to be careful," Mann said of the Obama administration. "Better to have the president and his top African American aides serve as role models and achieve the broader objective by indirection."

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