Obama’s Inability — or Unwillingness — to Say ‘Racism’ Did Not Help a Divided Nation Move Forward

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President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump, in the Oval Office, met each other in person for the first time on Nov. 11. Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

In “Dreams From My Father,” the 44th president’s top-selling memoir, the Commander in Chief wrote that his white grandfather insisted “the family left Texas in part because of their discomfort with … racism.” Obama’s white grandmother, Toot, swears, “The word racism wasn’t even in their vocabulary back then.” Perhaps the president inherited his white grandparents’ dialect because “racism” is mostly absent from his vocabulary, as well.

While delivering his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois, Obama identified “talk of a post-racial America” as a threat to the country. The nation’s first nonwhite president conceded, “Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”

With Usain Bolt-like haste, President Obama assured white listeners that he’d not gone rogue and had no intention of delivering an incendiary oratory on racism. “Now, I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago,” he said, to applause. “You can see it not just in statistics, you see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.”

William C. Rhoden, author of “Forty Million Dollar Slave,” and Les Payne, the founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, discussed the triumph of President-elect Donald J. Trump. The two agreed “at the core of this … we talk about ‘race.’ The issue in the United States is not ‘race.’ It’s racism. ‘Race’ is this kind of artificial [concept]. Our thing we’re talking about here is racism.”

Racism is choreographed, generational white plunder of nonwhite people, especially Black people. A major racist tactic is to encourage the use of language that obfuscates collective white pathology and the systematic violation of Black people. “White privilege,” “discrimination,” and “race” are inadequate terms to communicate the generations of Dylann Roof-type terrorism inflicted on Black people.

In “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race In The Age Of Obama,” the late Gwen Ifill interviewed Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe. He revealed, “The campaign and the candidate had hoped never to have to give a ‘race speech.'” Plouffe’s disclosure puts the 2008 rhetoric of “hope” in a different context. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright dashed those hopes and forced Obama to give “the talk.” In the midst of the yet-to-be-decided 2008 Democratic Primary, Sen. Obama’s presidential aspirations were nearly disemboweled when footage of his spiritual adviser’s condemnation of racism infuriated a sizable number of whites.

In “A More Perfect Union,” regarded by many as the most important speech of Obama’s career, the Illinois senator delivered a precision message crafted to alleviate white angst that an incognito Black militant was encroaching on the White House.

Obama told the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, audience — and, most important, whites at large — “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he said. “We would be making the same mistake that Rev. Wright made in his offending sermons about America. The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country.”

The first Black president equated Rev. Wright’s justified Black rage with the frustrations of white U.S. citizens. Obama told the City of Brotherly Love that, “To wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns, this too widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding.” “Race relations” are compromised by Black failure to empathize with aggrieved whites?

The conflation between Rev. Wright’s anger at racism and the behavior of racist whites was a recurring theme, with Obama eventually comparing his former pastor to his white grandmother, Toot. “A woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of Black men who passed by her on the street, and who, on more than one occasion, has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

Having assuaged enough white voters to trounce Hillary Clinton in the primaries and Sen. John McCain in the general election, Obama claimed the presidency and remained mum on racial matters until the 2009 Harvard kerfuffle. When a white policeman, Sgt. James Crowley, shackled Dr. Henry Louis Gates in his own residence, the first Black president charged that the officer “acted stupidly” and reminded the nation “race remains a factor in this society.”

The ensuing “whitelash” was immediate, ferocious and even marshaled the services of Bill Cosby. The now-disgraced comedian castigated the new president for even addressing the Cambridge incident. “I don’t care how much pressure people want to put on it about race,” Cosby said on Boston’s WZLX radio. “I’m keeping my mouth shut.”

Again, Obama was forced to appease the white populace. He praised the arresting officer’s “fine track record on racial sensitivity,” re-calibrated his words and orchestrated a White House “beer summit” with Gates and Crowley. Before leaving the Harvard controversy behind — and, largely, all commentary on “race” — the president observed, “The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that, you know, race is still a troubling aspect of our society.” So “troubling” that the president of the most powerful nation on Earth lacked the audacity to address the matter for years.

It was not until the killing of Trayvon Martin, in 2012, that President Obama addressed the issue again, telling a Rose Garden press assembly, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” A response no other U.S. president could provide. He spoke guardedly, briefly, and made no mention of racism. However, the slaughter of an unarmed, Black 17-year-old in Sanford, Florida, provoked a sizable response from Black people. Trayvon’s death is cited as the genesis of the Black Lives Matter political activism. Following the acquittal of Trayvon’s killer in a much-publicized 2013 trial, President Obama felt obligated to share 20 minutes of his thoughts on the verdict and “race.”

He touched on the “history of racial disparities” and acknowledged that he and most African-Americans are familiar with the “the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously.” Ostensibly, a white woman like grandma Toot.

The gravity of Trayvon’s death compelled Obama to use the term “racism.” “I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better,” the president said. “Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.”  Perhaps the president grossly miscalculated the “changing attitudes” and “white resentments” that would hand the Oval Office to Donald J. Trump, a man who spent most of Obama’s presidency branding the president as Kenyan-born, illegitimate.

Or maybe the system of white supremacy prohibits Black people from speaking honestly about racism. Even the first Black president. Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, author of “The Isis Papers,” discussed this issue during the final lecture before her January 2016 death. “I saw an article in the paper and the president was saying, ‘If we could just get beyond bigotry.’ Well, racism is not just ‘bigotry.’ It’s a total system, [a] structure that has a reason for existing.” She emphasized that racism is the most pressing problem confronting all Black people on the planet and declared that anyone not addressing racism is “missing the mark.”

She acknowledged that many Black people, including President Obama, hope never to discuss racism. “There are reasons that the president can’t talk about racism. Because the people who tell him whether he can live or die … the [officials] who let people jump over the fence, let people in uninvited to state dinners, the people that control whether he’s protected or not protected have said that this topic is off limits.”

This context helps explain Obama’s sanity-mangling pleas for Black people to “consider things from [the] point of view” of downtrodden whites. During Chicago’s farewell address, the president implored African-Americans to find parallels between Black suffering and #WhitePeopleProblems. “For Blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face …  the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.” Again, racial harmony is on hold until Black people begin listening to middle-aged whites.

As the final minutes of Obama’s tenure elapse, the deluge of reflections has commenced, many assessing the president’s impact — if any — on “race relations.” The BBC’s Nick Bryant offered a strikingly accurate interpretation: “Racial firsts, of the kind achieved by Barack Hussein Obama, can present a distorted view of history and convey a misleading sense of progress.” The president’s inability to speak accurately about racism contributed mightily to the distortion.

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