Why Now Is the Time for Obama to Address Race in America

The My Brother’s Keeper initiative is indicative of a “wiser” Obama, says a Congressional Black Caucus member.

President Barack Obama speaks as young men who participate in the 'Becoming A Man' program in Chicago watch him during an event in the East Room of the White House February 27, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama signed an executive memorandum following remarks on the My Brother's Keeper initiative. 
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
Feb. 28, 2014, 4:52 a.m.

First-term Pres­id­ent Obama bristled at cri­ti­cism that he wasn’t do­ing enough to sup­port black-owned busi­nesses, and de­clared, “I’m not the pres­id­ent of black Amer­ica. I’m the pres­id­ent of the United States of Amer­ica.” His state­ment in March 2012 that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” set off a lit­any of cri­ti­cism.

But something seems to have changed. Second-term Pres­id­ent Obama ex­plained, mov­ingly and at length, what the George Zi­m­mer­man ver­dict meant to black Amer­ica. And now he’s not just talk­ing more spe­cific­ally and dir­ectly about race; he’s also launch­ing ini­ti­at­ives aimed at help­ing young boys and men of col­or.

“He has come to the con­clu­sion, on this is­sue, that he does not have the right to re­main si­lent, and I think he is look­ing at his leg­acy, and he knows there are a lot of young boys and girls of col­or look­ing up to to him,” said Rep. Eli­jah Cum­mings, D-Md.

My Broth­er’s Keep­er, which Obama un­veiled in the East Room on Thursday, will cull to­geth­er re­sources from the private sec­tor and char­it­able found­a­tions to sup­port strategies that help in­crease the chances that young black and His­pan­ic boys will gradu­ate from high school, go to col­lege, stay out of pris­on, and have less chance of be­ing the vic­tims of murders. Busi­nesses and found­a­tions have pledged an ad­di­tion­al $200 mil­lion over five years, on top of $150 mil­lion they’ve already in­ves­ted. Obama em­phas­ized this isn’t a gov­ern­ment pro­gram, nor will the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment play a primary role. His ad­min­is­tra­tion will look for ways it can sup­port the ini­ti­at­ive’s goals through policy.

Obama called the is­sue “as im­port­ant as any is­sue that I work on,” one that “goes to the very heart of why I ran for pres­id­ent”: to en­sure op­por­tun­ity for all. He con­nec­ted the ini­ti­at­ive to his own story, high­light­ing how much he re­lated to young boys of col­or who grow up without fath­ers in their homes. He cited stat­ist­ics to show how boys of col­or “have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that re­quire unique solu­tions.” One in two Afric­an-Amer­ic­an boys grow up in a fath­er­less house­hold; it’s one in four for Latino boys. Black and Latino boys tend to read far be­low pro­fi­ciency level by fourth grade, and boys of col­or are six times more likely to be vic­tims of murder, ac­cord­ing to the White House.

Dur­ing Obama’s first term, some civil-rights lead­ers privately ex­pressed con­cern that he wasn’t do­ing enough to help the black com­munity. The Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus had cri­ti­cized the pres­id­ent for not un­der­tak­ing tar­geted ef­forts to bol­ster the high black un­em­ploy­ment rate.

Now, a num­ber of CBC mem­bers have noted that Obama has taken a dif­fer­ent ap­proach when talk­ing about race in his second-term. Demo­crat­ic Rep. Al­cee Hast­ings says the pres­id­ent’s rhet­or­ic and ac­tions are not bolder, “but wiser.”

“I don’t think that the po­s­i­tion that he’s in right now al­lows that there’s any dif­fer­ence in his thought, in his ac­tions. But he has noth­ing left to lose,” Hast­ings says.

Not fo­cus­ing so much on “mat­ters that could stoke the flames of di­vide” between vari­ous ra­cial groups dur­ing Obama’s first term “was a prudent de­cision,” says Rep. Hank John­son, D-Ga. “I’m glad the elec­tion is over. There are only three years left in the last term and now it is time to ad­dress this is­sue.”

CBC Chair­wo­man Mar­cia Fudge said My Broth­er’s Keep­er is really an edu­ca­tion­al ini­ti­at­ive, and to view it through the nar­rat­ive that Obama is be­ing bolder when talk­ing about race is to take it out of con­text. “It’s something that has long been needed, and I’m really, really happy about the fact that he’s do­ing it,” she said.

Many CBC mem­bers, who haven’t been briefed on the nuts and bolts of My Broth­er’s Keep­er, are non­ethe­less hope­ful that it will have a mean­ing­ful im­pact.

But, as with any­thing, there’s al­ways space to do more. Demo­crat­ic Rep. James Cly­burn says, “There’s a lot of room to be bolder” in how the pres­id­ent ad­dresses race. Spe­cific­ally, Cly­burn wants to see him use an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der to en­act pro­grams that Con­gress won’t move on, such as work-train­ing pro­grams for kids who don’t want to go to col­lege but want to learn skills such as plumb­ing.

Obama’s re­la­tion­ship with the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity is com­plex. Black voters sup­por­ted him nearly un­an­im­ously, with 93 per­cent vot­ing for Obama in 2012, down just 2 points from 2008.

“Even when we dis­agree with the pres­id­ent we are very, very del­ic­ate in our cri­ti­cism, be­cause we don’t want to aid and abet the ele­ment that is out call­ing him names,” former CBC Chair­man Emanuel Cleav­er says.

Some pub­lic black in­tel­lec­tu­als and lead­ers are not shy about cri­ti­ciz­ing the pres­id­ent on race. Cor­nel West and Tav­is Smi­ley, for in­stance, have been highly crit­ic­al of Obama’s hand­ling of race and poverty. Oth­ers, such as The At­lantic‘s Ta-Ne­hisi Coates, take is­sue with Obama’s em­phas­is on per­son­al re­spons­ib­il­ity when speak­ing to pre­dom­in­antly black audi­ences. “I think his­tory will also re­mem­ber his un­ques­tion­ing em­brace of ‘twice as good’ in a coun­try that has al­ways giv­en black people, even un­der his watch, half as much,” Coates writes.

In­deed, Obama con­tin­ued that ap­proach in his Thursday speech: “No mat­ter how much the com­munity chips in, it’s ul­ti­mately go­ing to be up to these young men and all the young men who are out there to step up and seize re­spons­ib­il­ity for their own lives.”

At the same time, whenev­er Obama speaks about race, many — par­tic­u­larly con­ser­vat­ives — call it play­ing the “race card,” or char­ac­ter­ize it as di­vis­ive. Even the My Broth­er’s Keep­er ini­ti­at­ive, with Bill O’Re­illy at­tend­ing the un­veil­ing, has some on the Right say­ing the pro­gram amounts to state-sponsored dis­crim­in­a­tion by fo­cus­ing only on boys and men of col­or.

These kinds of re­sponses have made the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion cau­tious on race, es­pe­cially dur­ing the first term, Cleav­er reas­ons. “He has been as far away, fur­ther away, on race than al­most any pres­id­ent in the last quarter of a cen­tury,” he says. “I think that the next Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent … will be able to move without fear of dis­cuss­ing any group in Amer­ica, in­clud­ing mem­bers of his or her race.”

Obama is stuck in the middle. He, per­haps more than any oth­er oc­cu­pant of the White House, un­der­stands the leg­acy of ra­cism and knows that the forces that al­lowed a black man to be­come pres­id­ent have also made it so chal­len­ging for him, more than any oth­er pres­id­ent, to ad­dress race spe­cific­ally. The trail-blaz­ing qual­ity of his pres­id­ency both en­ables and lim­its him.

At the start of his pres­id­ency, Obama re­cor­ded a video mes­sage to Amer­ic­an school chil­dren, ask­ing them to work hard and take re­spons­ib­il­ity for their edu­ca­tion. It spurred a con­ser­vat­ive back­lash among those who felt it im­prop­er for the pres­id­ent to in­sert him­self in such a way in­to the na­tion’s classrooms.

“When I saw that, and the way they dealt with him on that, they were ba­sic­ally say­ing, ‘How dare you tell our kids what to do?’ ” Cum­mings said. “I think he walks a very thin line, is my point.”

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