President Obama's comments about the controversial mosque proposed for lower Manhattan blindsided a wide swath of Americans. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was one. He had spent several weeks fending off repeated media questions about the mosque. At-risk Democrats on the campaign trail were also blindsided by the president's sudden decision to speak out on behalf of Muslim religious liberty. Obama's African-American supporters were also surprised by his decision to speak out, although they haven't received much media attention on this topic.
The first African-American president has taken a large dose of criticism over the past two years for his cautious approach to the issue of race. Even when members of his own administration have identified the racial crossroads where America now stands (e.g., Attorney General Eric Holder's initially premature — but now increasingly prescient — remarks in February 2009 about Americans being a "nation of cowards" on race), the president has been determined to stifle or otherwise shift the conversation as quickly as possible.
This has been very different from Obama's approach to Muslim issues since he took office — something that could make critics feel he is more willing to show a soft spot toward his Muslim background than his black heritage.
Since 2009, President Obama has taken several controversial steps in his effort to create a new relationship and a new perspective on Muslims. He took this endeavor to the Middle East in 2009 to address Israeli-Arab relations from the front lines. His overtures at peace to Iranian President Ahmadinejad after a dubious election were ignored as the regime continued its march toward nuclear weaponry.
Friday's comments — which spoke directly in support of the mosque proposed near Ground Zero, although he pulled back later — exhibited another Obama moment where the president has been willing to stick his neck out in a controversy that has hurt allies, hindered American domestic peace and helped tarnish his presidential legacy.
But his actions should also ignite criticism within the black community. During this period of activism toward Muslims, the Obama stance on race — essentially avoiding the issue of race — has been both insulting and betraying. The president's refusal to dive deeply into matters that disproportionately affect black Americans — from higher rates of unemployment to health disparities based on economics and education — has been consistent during his tenure. This contrasts with his outspoken support for Muslim-American rights in America and his active effort to overturn Arizona's SB 1070 law on behalf of undocumented immigrants.
President Obama publicly scourges black men on issues of parenthood and personal responsibility when addressing groups like the NAACP to bolster his mainstream and media support (ironically, by leveraging a heavily conservative message), but in the process, he also ignores the causes of many of the conditions plaguing black America.
However, the president will continue to capture 98 percent of the African-American vote (a much greater percentage than Muslim-Americans gave him in 2008) in 2010 and 2012, even if his unwillingness to speak out openly for black people continues. Standing up for the rights of Muslims in America is understandable, but it should be particularly hurtful to black folks in America who see his unwillingness to speak on matters of race in the same manner: with conviction, passion, openness and consistency.
The presidency of the United States is the ultimate bully pulpit, one that President Obama has used on several occasions to hammer home his viewpoints on Muslim-American relations within our borders and throughout the world. During a cold January afternoon in 2009, many African Americans thought that "hope and change" would also mean use of that pulpit to finally address some of the most daunting disparities between blacks and other Americans. This has not happened, perhaps because the president views his alliances with other minority groups as more politically useful. Regardless, black America must tell the president that his continued silence on matters of race is something that could make a difference at the polls in November.
Lenny McAllister is a syndicated political commentator and the author of the upcoming new edition of the book Diary of a Mad Black PYC (Proud Young Conservative): The Obama Era, Part I (2008-2010). Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.