American race relations have always proceeded in fits and starts. Every successful piece of legislation passed in pursuit of racial equality has been met with massive resistance by white Americans. But of late, progress has proved itself even more uneven. Part of this stems from a willful denial of the existence, let alone persistence, of institutional racism in America.
Racial segregation’s stubborn endurance in public schools, neighborhoods and social activities remains at the heart of contemporary America’s political and cultural divisions. Race continues to be the third rail of national politics. Racial denial is both unfortunate and shortsighted. Our national failure to openly confront racial inequality 50 years after major civil rights legislation is crippling American democracy.
The president’s political strategy on race matters has been largely one of avoidance. Recent events, however, have overwhelmed this strategy. National demonstrations in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict forced Obama to speak candidly about the black community’s anger over Trayvon Martin’s death. Obama’s willingness to discuss racism, civil rights and race relations during an impromptu address to the White House press marked one of the most important unscripted moments of his presidency.
But for many whites it confirmed their worst fears about Obama. The contemporary belief that to even broach the topic of race makes one a racist considers Obama’s comments about Trayvon to be divisive and inflammatory. Colorblind racism finds comfort in a dream world of racial denial, while offering no solutions for the real-world racial disparities that surround us.
The president’s upcoming March on Washington anniversary speech offers the unique opportunity to candidly acknowledge the nation’s racial divisions while offering policy recommendations that could promote dialogue, understanding and healing. Some have defended the president’s reluctance to speak openly about race in America as the sage choice of a politician. Yet since race continues to touch every aspect of American life, ignoring its presence is both politically and morally irresponsible.
Once again, Arizona has been the site for teaching tough lessons about race and democracy. In this case the state has forcefully reminded Obama and the rest of the nation that ignoring race in America is a difficult task and sometimes, especially for the president of the United States, virtually impossible to do.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.