(The Root) — Barack Obama passed a crucial test of presidential leadership this past Friday by directly and forthrightly addressing the crisis of race and democracy that has gripped the nation’s attention in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial. In an impromptu address to the White House press corps, Obama adopted the role of racial healer and translator in chief, speaking in a halting but eloquent voice that tied the rage and grief that millions of black have expressed in the verdict’s aftermath to America’s long history of racial injustice.
Obama, who has largely avoided discussing race relations during his presidency, spoke in a deeply personal tone about the impact of racial profiling on black men and boys, as well as on himself before his election to the U.S. Senate. “There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off,” remarked the president. “That happens often.”
Then Obama went further, imagining how the outcome of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman confrontation might have turned out very differently had the teenager been white. In doing so, he pointedly acknowledged the way in which race — or, more precisely, institutional racism and its cultural reverberations — helped lead to Trayvon’s premature death.
But the president’s remarks were at their weakest when it came to policy proposals. Rather than offer a bold new prescription for preventing the gun violence, racial profiling and poverty that too often lead to the incarceration and marginalization of young black boys, the president recommended that the Justice Department review “Stand your ground” laws and improve police training.
President Obama must follow the example that he adopted in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, Conn., by signing a series of executive orders designed to end racial profiling and discriminatory law-enforcement practices. Moreover, he should walk back any hint that he would consider appointing New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly — the nation’s leading racial profiler — as head of homeland security.
Our crippling national legislative gridlock should not be a reason for the president to automatically dismiss proposing sweeping legislation related to poverty, jobs, schools and criminal justice. Now is the time for him to use the presidential bully pulpit not only to discuss the continued existence of racial disparities half a century after the March on Washington but also to propose public-policy recommendations that go beyond personal anecdote, in order to address the indignities and humiliations of racial injustice and oppression that millions of black Americans suffer daily. Obama’s heartfelt words about being a black man in America will ultimately be judged by the impact of his policies on the black community, race relations and our national democratic culture.
But that’s not to say that the president’s candid admission that “we need to spend some time thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys” should not be applauded in light of not just Trayvon’s murder but also the state of black urban America in the 21st century.
Obama’s concluding remarks might help the nation jump-start a national conversation about race and democracy linked to public-policy transformations that this country desperately needs. Echoing John F. Kennedy’s description of racism as a “moral problem,” Obama asked Americans of all backgrounds to engage in “soul-searching” around issues of racial justice, equality and freedom.