As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama was forced to tackle the “race issue” head on when his White House ambitions were threatened by his black pastor’s inflammatory suggestion that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a case of “America’s chickens coming home to roost.”
Mr. Obama met the challenge with grace and courage. In a speech for the ages, one so personal it could only have been written by Mr. Obama himself, the candidate for the Democratic nomination expressed the wisdom of a man who had not only worked through his own racial demons, but one who had made the effort to walk a metaphorical mile in another’s shoes.
The “racial stalemate” that plagued the United States, Mr. Obama concluded, was the product of black anger and white resentment. For African-Americans, he said, citing Southern author William Faulkner, “the past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” The enduring woes of the black underclass – poverty, violence, rotten schools and absent fathers – could be traced to the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. But the anger it had spawned, and its exploitation by black leaders, “keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition.”
Most working- and middle-class white Americans, meanwhile, do not see themselves as having benefited from racial privilege. They think they’ve worked hard for what they have, and fear losing it to affirmative action or redistribution to blacks. They don’t consider themselves racist, but crime statistics have made them wary. Even Mr. Obama’s own white grandmother once “confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street.” Yet, whites hear black leaders cast blame on them in a seemingly endless demand for reparation.
Eliminating this racial stalemate would have been too much to expect of any one politician. But more than five years after that speech, what’s striking is how little the first black president seems to have tried.
That’s been woefully apparent this week in the wake of the not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial. In 2012, Mr. Obama briefly, but powerfully, addressed the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin by a half-Hispanic neighbourhood watch volunteer, saying that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.” It was a nod to the fear and frustration of every black parent who knows their son is viewed suspiciously by whites and police.
But if Mr. Obama had made racial reconciliation an ongoing theme of his presidency, the reaction to Mr. Zimmerman’s acquittal might not have been so discouraging. Instead, a familiar racial dialogue of the deaf has been playing out in a sorry cable news cacophony, with potentially dangerous results.
Black “leaders” conflate Mr. Zimmerman’s acquittal with the historical wrongs perpetrated by the U.S. criminal justice system, particularly in the South, where whites who committed crimes against blacks routinely got off scot-free. They would see Mr. Zimmerman, who claimed he shot Mr. Martin in self-defence, pay the price for the past sins of white judges and juries. “Our prisons are full of young, black men for whom guilty beyond a reasonable doubt was easy enough to reach,” Ekow Yankah of New York’s Cardozo School of Law reasoned in The New York Times.
Rather than acknowledge bias in the U.S. criminal justice system, The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley wrote that “any candid debate on race and criminality in this country would have to start with the fact that blacks commit an astoundingly disproportionate number of crimes.” He called for black leaders to focus not on white racism, but personal responsibility. That, however, is as disingenuous as denying the country’s history and the shared obligation of all Americans to correct the injustices that have condemned so many young black men to a life of violence.
So far, Mr. Obama has not opined publicly about the Zimmerman verdict. Sunday, he issued a statement acknowledging that the jury had spoken and calling for “calm reflection” to prevent more tragedy. But his administration faces calls to bring hate-crime charges against Mr. Zimmerman, with a million people signing a petition and Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network planning countrywide demonstrations for Saturday. The “racial stalemate” is eating away at the collective soul.
That the first African-American in the White House has had so little to say about it all is disappointing, but in keeping with the unfulfilled promise of his presidency.