(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.
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.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.