|President Obama keeps quiet on race — again By: Edward-Isaac Dovere July 16, 2013 05:01 AM EDT|
|America’s been waiting five years to hear more from President Barack Obama on race.
The waiting continues.
Trayvon Martin is dead and George Zimmerman was found not guilty — leaving many looking to the president to lead the thoughtful, national conversation about black-white relations they thought was promised in his 2008 campaign speech on race.
Yes, there’s a double standard. No previous president has been asked so often for his personal feelings on race. But for the first black president, that double standard is part of his life, and of his presidency. And black leaders say that, especially after last year’s election, the time has come to deliver more than what he has so far.
“The president is now in his second term. Because of the Voting Rights Act and the Trayvon Martin case” and the disproportionately greater impact on the black community from the recession, said National Urban League President Marc Morial, “I think that the table is set for the president to think about how he can address these issues not just in words, but renew some of the issues that he’s championed.”
For Morial, that means Obama, with the help of Congress, taking back up the JOBS Act and gun control legislation, and, in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, doing so explicitly in the context of race.
Some older black leaders admit a sense of resignation after years of disappointment. Though Obama’s expected to be asked to elaborate in a series of interviews with Spanish language television stations scheduled for Tuesday, they haven’t heard much from the president since the Florida jury returned Saturday night, and they weren’t expecting to.
“It’s not unusual for the president to avoid ‘black’ and ‘race’ and ‘poverty,’ but we’re pretty much satisfied with his statement as it relates to the Zimmerman verdict,” said Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).
But given the amount of attention the case got in the news and in protests since the verdict means to Obama’s close supporters, he may have a new chance now to seize control of the conversation in a way he hasn’t to date.
“This is an opportunity for us not to kick the can down the road again, and I think it’s a chance for the president to get larger than the regular politics and the racial riffs would dictate,” said Cornell Belcher, an African-American and a pollster who worked on both of Obama’s presidential campaigns. “It’s an opportunity to create an understanding. A lot of white America doesn’t seem to understand the hurt that’s in the African-American community today.”
Whether the president will take that opportunity, Belcher said — “that’s a different question.”
In this situation, Obama’s thoughts aren’t much of a mystery. His statement last March that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” was one of the rawest moments of his presidency — and one of the rare public comments from the president about his race, and the realities that come with it.
After the verdict, he issued a written statement observing, “I know this case has elicited strong passions,” without acknowledging that some of those strong passions had been elicited within him.
He didn’t even mention race, nodding only obliquely at the need “to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.”
The White House has largely resisted efforts to dissect the meaning and intent behind the Sunday statement. But pressed Monday for more on Obama’s personal reaction, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president’s feelings were apparent in the bland written release.
“I think his statement yesterday reflects how the loss of a young person is a source of great anguish and pain for the parents of that person, for the community where that person lived and for the whole country,” Carney said, “because the loss is greater when a young person dies because the potential of that life is so unfulfilled.”
Nothing specifically about race. Nothing about policy, beyond the call for better gun control in the president’s statement over the weekend and repeated by Carney in the briefing room.
To Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) that’s the real issue. There needs to be a national conversation on race, she said, but the president isn’t necessarily the one who has to lead it. Moore said that for Obama, the Zimmerman verdict should be another call to put forward policy addressing racial inequality in education, economics and criminal justice — with or without the bigger race in America discussion.
“As far as I’m concerned, he does not have to put a dashiki on, wave a red-black-and-green flag, put up a black power fist,” Moore said. “What I need him to do is try to level the playing field to make sure that African-Americans have the same opportunities.”
Obama’s in a precarious position. The president needed to ensure that the protests didn’t become riots more intense than the confrontations in California Monday evening that led to several arrests, said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, and that the millions of people who might not agree with him about the verdict wouldn’t be jolted into polarization by a distorted comment out of the Oval Office.
“There are many issues here, deep-seated issues here that have to be dealt with going forward. But you also have to make sure that people are ready to hear that message at an appropriate time,” Nutter said. “We have to be mature enough to have a legitimate national conversation on issues about race and violence and community engagement and culture and perceptions.”
Plus, as much eagerness as there is to hear more from Obama, there’s a widespread worry any more direct statement from him could spoil the Justice Department action that Attorney General Eric Holder renewed his commitment to on Monday.
“If there’s a voice that we want to hear in this administration, it’s the voice of the U.S. Department of Justice,” said NAACP President Ben Jealous, arguing that his focus is on building pressure for civil rights prosecution and a civil case against Zimmerman that would force the shooter to take the stand. “I told the president a long time ago that we expect him to be commander in chief, not advocate in chief.”
Freshman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) agreed. Finding a way to prosecute Zimmerman is the priority, not dissecting what was in the president’s statement or what wasn’t.
Obama, Jeffries said, has a responsibility to take part in a national conversation about the “continuing racial dynamics that exist in this country, as he did when he powerfully said, ‘If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.’ That was appropriate at that moment. There will be other opportunities for President Obama to comment on race relations moving forward. But now is not the time for him to inject himself into this as the judicial process works its way through.”
Among members of Congress, the president has a suddenly slightly fuller reservoir of goodwill to call on, thanks to a scheduled meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus last week that members say turned out to be their most positive get-together ever.
They’ve gotten used to Obama taking a defensive posture stressing how much he’d already done, or talking about his agenda in terms of a rising tide lifting all boats. Instead, he told them, their concerns were legitimate, he was looking for ways to break House Republicans’ obstruction — and, importantly, that he’d already started exploring executive actions to go around Congress on issues they cared about but couldn’t move.
Not that they’re expecting him to get too far with their agenda, even with his more gratifying recent approach.
“If he can’t get anything done for a majority of white people, then how the hell are we going to tell him to talk more about the problems for blacks?” Rangel, a CBC veteran, complained.
With or without the president’s participation, there’s a new discussion taking shape: Fifty years after the “I have a dream speech,” black leaders say they sense another moment upon them.
Between the Zimmerman verdict, the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act last month and the clear continuing economic trauma in the black community, “I have a sense that the seeds of a new civil rights movement are being planted,” Morial said, explaining that people have been reawakened to “protecting past gains and pushing for more.”
Some of that will be addressed at the end of August, when black leaders will convene for an anniversary March on Washington that will take them from the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial to the new King Memorial.
“People aren’t excited to march for anniversaries. They’re moved to march for their children’s future. This is a moment when the courts in very negative ways are reminding us just what an impact they can have on our children’s future,” Jealous said. “We can ultimately come together and overrule their impact through democratic and alternatively legislative action.”
Obama hasn’t been invited to address the march, and he won’t be. But organizer Van White said that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be paying attention and reminded of how his predecessors responded to the racial violence of the 1960s.
“The Kennedys and Lyndon Baines Johnson took those tragedies and turned them into legislative triumphs,” White said. “The model for using tragedies and turning them into legislative triumphs — that’s where the opportunity for President Obama exists.”
Still: Obama’s not being counted on to grapple with Zimmerman and Martin any more directly than he has, and they’re through hoping he will.
“Does the president have a responsibility? Yeah, as all Americans have a responsibility,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). “It would be great if the president would speak more forthrightly. But if he doesn’t, or he does, we’ve got to continue to have that kind of discussion.”
Rush and Rangel, though, said on a certain level, they understand Obama’s restricted reactions, given the racism they say is inherent in many of the president’s political opponents.
“I don’t see why he has to remind the tea party who he is,” Rangel said. “That’s like a man about to be lynched wants to give a talk about civil rights.”
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