The Power of the Obama Race Formula

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

(The Root) — Race is one of those subjects that can get you quick-flash-fried in American public life. Like a small drumstick dropped into a boiling cauldron of grease, a public figure can be burned to a crisp in seconds. From Al Campanis, Jesse Jackson and Don Imus to Trent Lott, Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Paula Deen, the popular landscape is littered with those who have erred on race in the public eye. I thus found myself moved and uplifted by the good and courageous remarks President Obama made Friday about the death of Trayvon Martin and the unfortunate outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. 


Speaking out at this time and in this way was no easy thing for a politician to do. And Obama did so with eloquence and vision.

Nonetheless, Obama will surely be denounced by some on right and the left. From the right it will be the bitter old cant that Obama has given into "black special interests" and fanned the flames of racial resentment. From the left it will be an indignant claim that he is too timid or weak in not having done more to denounce the verdict and champion calls for a new trial for Zimmerman. (And probably a hundred other slants as well in our ever-proliferating hyper-blogosphere.) These messages are wrongheaded and miss the grace and power of what Obama did today.

To appreciate the dilemma, we have to remember the context in which the president — and any African-American politician aiming to speak to all Americans, not just a presumed loyal black constituency — of necessity operates. From the moment he became a serious national candidate in 2007 and throughout his presidency, Obama has faced what I call the Racial Triple Challenge, a set of hurdles confronting any mainstream center-left black politician. 

First, the RTC means Obama must always act so as to at least disconfirm, if not rise over, traditional and still widely accepted stereotypes of African Americans. He must be articulate, well-informed, polite, never angry or distinctly aggressive and showcase a commitment to family values. Second, he must scrupulously avoid touching the third rail of American national politics. That third rail we can call an amalgam of black advocacy, black grievances and black entitlement to redress. Any politician, especially an African-American politician seen as playing this "race card," is assured of alienating a huge swath of white voters, not merely those easily cast reactionary or openly anti-black. Third, Obama and all mainstream black aspirants to high political office must establish themselves as exceptions to stereotype, avoid the third rail and yet do and say enough to keep their core constituency (blacks, other people of color and the most liberal whites) galvanized and engaged. Not now, nor ever, has this been an easy set of hurdles to clear.

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.