The Power of the Obama Race Formula

Discussing race is no easy thing for any president. Obama did it Friday with eloquence and vision.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

(The Root) — Race is one of those subjects that can get you quick-flash-fried in American public life. Like a small drumstick dropped into a boiling cauldron of grease, a public figure can be burned to a crisp in seconds. From Al Campanis, Jesse Jackson and Don Imus to Trent Lott, Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Paula Deen, the popular landscape is littered with those who have erred on race in the public eye. I thus found myself moved and uplifted by the good and courageous remarks President Obama made Friday about the death of Trayvon Martin and the unfortunate outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. 

Speaking out at this time and in this way was no easy thing for a politician to do. And Obama did so with eloquence and vision.

Nonetheless, Obama will surely be denounced by some on right and the left. From the right it will be the bitter old cant that Obama has given into “black special interests” and fanned the flames of racial resentment. From the left it will be an indignant claim that he is too timid or weak in not having done more to denounce the verdict and champion calls for a new trial for Zimmerman. (And probably a hundred other slants as well in our ever-proliferating hyper-blogosphere.) These messages are wrongheaded and miss the grace and power of what Obama did today.

To appreciate the dilemma, we have to remember the context in which the president — and any African-American politician aiming to speak to all Americans, not just a presumed loyal black constituency — of necessity operates. From the moment he became a serious national candidate in 2007 and throughout his presidency, Obama has faced what I call the Racial Triple Challenge, a set of hurdles confronting any mainstream center-left black politician. 

First, the RTC means Obama must always act so as to at least disconfirm, if not rise over, traditional and still widely accepted stereotypes of African Americans. He must be articulate, well-informed, polite, never angry or distinctly aggressive and showcase a commitment to family values. Second, he must scrupulously avoid touching the third rail of American national politics. That third rail we can call an amalgam of black advocacy, black grievances and black entitlement to redress. Any politician, especially an African-American politician seen as playing this “race card,” is assured of alienating a huge swath of white voters, not merely those easily cast reactionary or openly anti-black. Third, Obama and all mainstream black aspirants to high political office must establish themselves as exceptions to stereotype, avoid the third rail and yet do and say enough to keep their core constituency (blacks, other people of color and the most liberal whites) galvanized and engaged. Not now, nor ever, has this been an easy set of hurdles to clear.