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Obama, Race and What We're Not Talking About

President and Michelle Obama leaving the White House this week for their trip to Europe.
President and Michelle Obama leaving the White House this week for their trip to Europe. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, April 3, 2009

Not even three months have passed since President Obama's historic inauguration, and already it tends to slip the nation's collective mind that the first black president of the United States is, in fact, black. There may be hope for us after all.

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In the cacophonous commentary about the president -- he's a breath of fresh air, he's too liberal, he's too moderate, he's being far too generous to the banks, he's some kind of closet socialist, he's restoring the nation to greatness, he's leading us to perdition -- it's striking how seldom race is mentioned as an issue or even an attribute. That's only natural, since race could hardly be more irrelevant to the multitude of urgent problems Obama wrestles with every day. Watching him in action, as he shoves out the chief executive of General Motors or exchanges small talk with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, we witness a daily demonstration of the irrelevance of race. And that, potentially, is nothing short of transformative.

Eric Holder, our first African American attorney general, touched a nerve in February when he said we are "essentially a nation of cowards" in our hesitance to speak frankly to one another about race. Less attention was paid to the rest of his speech, in which he celebrated the vast progress we have made on racial issues but also lamented the way we tend to segregate ourselves in our private lives. "Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle," he said, "it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated."

Holder was right in his call for a frank, meaningful dialogue about race in this country, and I wish I could be confident that something of this sort might actually take place. I doubt it will, though. People who are comfortable talking about race don't need the encouragement, and those who feel threatened by the subject will find ways to tune out. Our major newspapers regularly produce epic-length examinations of the issue of race in America that are meticulously reported, brilliantly written and beautifully presented. Having been involved in a few of these projects, I'm proud of them. But the truth is that they were more admired than read.

I would argue, though, that Holder's decision Wednesday to void the botched prosecution of former senator Ted Stevens on corruption charges had real impact on the racial dialogue that takes place inside our heads. Holder reviewed the record of prosecutorial mistakes and misconduct and took decisive, definitive action. On an issue that had nothing to do with race, a black man was large and in charge.

This is the kind of illustration that Obama and his family provide every day. Often, the story is told by pictures rather than words. When we see Obama and his wife and children climb into Marine One, the presidential helicopter, for a trip to Camp David, we see a first family unlike any other. When we see Obama sitting down with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to launch a new round of negotiations on nuclear arms control, we see a black man functioning as leader of the free world. When we see other heads of government treating Obama with the deference due any president of the United States, as we saw at this week's economic summit in London, we see old assumptions and prejudices proved wrong.

Obviously, history will remember Obama's groundbreaking achievement as our first black president. But that's not how he will be judged. Future generations will assess his presidency not on how big its symbolic impact may have been but on how successful Obama was in handling the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression -- and, perhaps even more important, on his success or failure at setting the nation on a new, more progressive course through his initiatives on health care, energy and education. This is a president who has no interest in simply presiding. He aims to lead.

Not that he has any choice, given the circumstances he inherits. The auto industry has to be restructured. The banks have to be induced, or instructed, to start lending again. The North Koreans are threatening to launch a long-range missile. Pakistan is under attack from within. Nobody has any time for symbolism.

We focus on Obama's ability, not his color. In doing so, we are a better nation.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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