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 BettyConfidential.com 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."
Others argue that African American administration officials are simply bringing their background, perspective and history to the public sphere. Holder, Jackson and Obama are the first African Americans in their positions, and it should come as no surprise that their celebration of black history is different from their predecessors', said Shawnta Walcott, a pollster at Ariel & Ethan.
"I think what we know about the first lady is that part of her persona is to go one level down into something that she thinks is significant," Walcott said. "She is the first African American first lady, so we should expect to see those sorts of nuanced pieces of information coming from her. It is unusual for the norm, but she is not the norm."
There are attempts now to define the new normal. Last weekend, after Holder's use of the phrase "nation of cowards" drew criticism, it became a subject of discussion at a Princeton University symposium titled "From the Middle Passage to the Oval Office: Defining the Black Experience."
One of the panelists, Jeff Johnson, host and producer of Black Entertainment Television's "The Truth," said the reaction to the attorney general's comments read as if "he was saying only white Americans were cowards."
Holder "was talking about all of us, from white Americans to African Americans to Asians to Latinos," said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton. "The fact that we would read Holder's comments as only about white Americans shows us how we are thinking about race when it is invoked."
Glaude noted that reaction to Holder's comments coincided with publication of a controversial editorial cartoon in the New York Post. NAACP officials decried the cartoon as a racist depiction of the president as a slain chimpanzee. The NAACP called for the cartoonist and his editor to be fired and held protests Thursday at Fox News affiliates in 50 cities. The Fox News affiliates and the New York Post have the same owner, News Corp.
Other people have shushed protesters as overly sensitive.
"It is just the traditional theater of American racial politics," Glaude said.
Rinku Sen, president of the Applied Research Center, a think tank on race in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and New York, said she also worries that the dialogue about race is being pushed back into the old paradigm that kept the nation in a stalemate.
"I think that the line is, 'We've elected the black president, and now we're post-racial and everybody should just shut up.' It's very dismissive," Sen said. "We did elect the first black president, but people seem to forget that it was a hard campaign."
To Jelani Cobb, a professor of African American history at Spelman College, the back-and-forth about race in the age of Obama already feels old.
"Our major concerns about race are not conversations," Cobb said. "They are about policies, and they are about entrenched legacies of privilege and underprivilege. So in some ways, these conversations are a substitute for other kinds of more meaningful reform or interaction."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.