While freely admitting that we do not live in a postracial society or one wherein racism is ending, the president found hope in the racial attitudes of his daughters’ generation. “They’re better than we are,” he noted. President Obama’s words should mark the official end of the dream of “postracial” America and begin the hard work of building the more perfect union that he has spoken of so eloquently throughout his time in politics.
Although Obama’s words fell short of the sweeping policy recommendations that civil rights leaders and progressives might have wished for, the very fact that he spoke out so forthrightly represents an important victory. The massive waves of protests that have erupted in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., compelled the president to speak. This should not come as a surprise. Historically, American presidents have addressed race matters only in moments of national crisis, and even then only as a result of grassroots political pressure.
Presidential action and commitment on racial justice during the civil rights movement’s heroic period came through the collective power of civil rights organizations and ordinary Americans. Almost 50 years later, the March on Washington is seen by many as a rendezvous with destiny, but at the time it was a risky gamble that President Kennedy only reluctantly endorsed for fear of fomenting racial violence. The 1965 Selma-Montgomery voting-rights demonstrations similarly compelled President Lyndon Johnson to forcefully align himself with racial justice and democracy. President Obama’s status as America’s first black president has made him more reluctant than even his white counterparts to publicly address race matters, although a racial subtext (both positive and negative) has shadowed his entire presidency.
The muscular and far-reaching public-policy transformations to end the mass incarceration, racial profiling, poverty, failing schools and decaying communities that marginalize black folk and poor people of all backgrounds in America can come only from grassroots political organizing. As we come together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 2013, Americans should commit to participating in and leading a conversation on race and democracy in universities, public schools, churches and synagogues.
Ultimately, the dizzying events of the past week have shown us that when it comes to American race relations, we are living in the age of both Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin. How we confront this apparent contradiction is vital to the future of American democracy.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.
The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University will convene a “National Dialogue on Race Day” on Sept. 12, 2013. The center invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.