ROBINSON: For Obama, mum should be the word

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson

WASHINGTON — We should talk honestly about unresolved racial issues, such as those exposed by the Trayvon Martin case, but President Obama is not the best person to lead the discussion. Through no fault of his own, he might be the worst.

The need for what diplomats call a “full and frank exchange of views” is obvious. Many Americans don’t even agree that there are unresolved racial issues, much less that such issues played a role in George Zimmerman’s acquittal. It’s as if some of us live on different planets.

I find it impossible to imagine the outcome would have been the same if the protagonists’ roles were reversed — if Zimmerman had been the victim and Martin the defendant. I know, however, that there are many people who believe the hoodie-wearing African-American teenager would have been accorded the same benefit of the doubt his killer was given. I also know that one’s beliefs about race and racism tend to be highly correlated with one’s experience of race and racism.

What we’re doing now, in an awkward and uncomfortable way, is talking about those beliefs and experiences — shouting about them, actually. For better or for worse, this seems to be the way we conduct the “national conversation about race” that thoughtful people are always recommending. Here’s how it works: Something happens that makes the subject of race all but unavoidable. We stake out our positions. We get all worked up. We start to get frustrated. Gradually we lose focus and the dialogue, such as it was, peters out. No one feels we’ve made any headway. Often we have, though the progress may not be evident for some time.

Maybe it would be better if we all gathered at public libraries on some appointed day and worked our way through an agenda: “Legacy of Slavery,” check. “Jim Crow Segregation,” check. “Affirmative Action,” check. Sounds awfully boring to me, to tell the truth. And in any event, it’s never going to happen.

For people who want to talk about race, there are plenty of outlets, venues and forums — more than ever, in fact, with the rise of social media. But those who prefer to avoid the subject are not likely to be enticed by earnestness. Nor do they respond well, evidence suggests, to the observations and oratory of the first African-American president when he talks about race. It’s not the way things ought to be or the way I’d like them to be, but it’s the way things are.

The record indicates that honest talk from Obama about race is seen by many people as threatening. A classic example came just months into his first term, when a white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., had an unpleasant encounter with Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is black, and ended up arresting the famous scholar on his own front porch.

Speaking off the cuff at a news conference, Obama said the officer had “acted stupidly.” The remark seemed innocuous to me, a mere statement of fact. It might have been the departure point for a nuanced examination of what happens when race intersects class.

Instead, Obama unintentionally provoked such outrage and counter-outrage that he invited the two men to the White House for a photo-op “beer summit” as a way of chilling everyone out. Similarly, Obama’s factual statement that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” drew shrieks of accusation that the president was unfairly taking sides in a criminal case. His statement following Saturday’s verdict was anodyne and forgettable. Perhaps that’s for the best.

The designation “first black (fill in the blank)” always brings with it unfair burdens, and one of Obama’s — he bears many — is that almost anything he says about race will be seen by some as favoring the interests of black Americans over white Americans.

At this point in his presidency, Obama could ignore this absurd reality and say whatever he wants. He must be sorely tempted. But the unfortunate fact is that if his aim is to promote dialogue about race, speaking his mind is demonstrably counterproductive.

Obama does more to change racial attitudes and challenge prejudices simply by performing his functions as head of state and commander in chief. A dozen speeches about the long struggle for racial equality and justice would not have the impact of one picture of the first family — the proud, African-American first family — walking across the White House lawn. No caption necessary.

Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. Email him at eugenerobinson@washpost.com.


JV 2 years, 2 months ago

Why doesn’t Eugene talk about the four thugs that brutally assaulted and murdered Joshua Chellew in Mableton, Georgia on June 30? Why is Joshua Chellew less important than Trayvon Martin? Where is the outrage?



FordGalaxy 2 years, 2 months ago

I wonder if race would've even been an issue in the Zimmerman case if CNN hadn't pushed so desperately to label him a "white Hispanic."


notblind 2 years, 2 months ago

It's too late. Obama already commented on the case. Back when it first "hit" the news Obama commented on the case in a manner that was so unethical, immoral and unprecedented that the ramifications still haven't fully been realized by the American public. The sitting president of the United States, for purely political gain, interjected himself into a purely local matter. The words he used could have no other effect than to be prejudicial against a US citizen of hispanic extraction. A man who had broken no laws as the local LE agencies had already determined. ....................................................... In a way there is cause to give Obama benefit of the doubt. He was in the middle of a reelection campaign and we know that ANYTHING GOES when Barack Hussein Obama is in an election. He misses no opportunity to take every advantage in his grasp. IRS misconduct, liberal media bias, outright lies [ transparency ?? ] and yes, the sound bite opportunity accorded by this case. As case where an innocent man could have been sent to prison for the rest of his life, just for a few votes. Amazing. ................................................................... .

There is no election currently going on so Obama feels no irresistible compulsion to further milk the situation for nebulous political gain.


Haughton 2 years, 2 months ago

Mr Robinson -

Breaking News:


President BHO must do more for Trayvon Martin than he did for Sandy Hook ...

think about it ...


JV 2 years, 2 months ago

Oh well.

This afternoon, President Obama spoke from the White House Press Briefing Room about Trayvon Martin and the verdict of the court trial that followed the Florida teenager’s death.



notblind 2 years, 2 months ago

As usual for Obama, he did not utter one harsh truth. Just a bunch of carefully screened sound bites. No leadership here to see people, move along move along.


kevin 2 years, 2 months ago

Obama should stay "mum" for 3 more years, then I would agree with you Mr Robinson.


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