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

Obama’s strategy in response to the RTC in his finest moments has always been, first, to speak in a manner that validates the concerns and perspectives of middle-of-the-road white America. In this case he affirmed the work of the judge, the Zimmerman jury and of a criminal justice system that had putatively done its job. Moreover, he spoke of the involvement of too many young black men in crime, especially violent crime. But, second, and what most Obama critics on the left routinely fail to acknowledge, is that he gave voice to the perspectives and concerns of black America. He declared that African Americans were “looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” He spoke frankly about the problem of profiling, and despite much positive change in America, he noted the ongoing challenges of a racial divide. In that sense, the president spoke to the real context of American history and the living presence of that history in the multiple traumas of this moment. 

Finally, he called for us all to show empathy and above all to not let matters of parochial identity trump our truer and deeper commonalities as Americans and human beings. 

Most of all, he took the bold steps of calling for efforts to address the sources of black mistrust in the criminal justice system — profiling — and he called for an examination of “Stand your ground” type laws and whether they encourage potential violent and deadly confrontations, and he expressed direct interest in facilitating a more constructive effort to assure young black men that they have a future in America. All of this, in my view, bespeaks a kind of political courage we have not seen in the White House on race issues for more than a generation.

The president decided to call us all “to the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.” It was the right thing to do. There is no doubt in my mind that most politicians would have done the safe and craven thing by not speaking out again on the subject, or not doing so quite as personally and candidly as did Barack Obama. In so doing, he continues to prod the nation toward a better place on race.

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences and chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.