President Obama’s Racial Renaissance

By Michael Eric Dyson
Aug. 1, 2015

WE finally have the president we thought we elected: one who talks directly and forcefully about race and human rights.

When President Obama took the podium at the annual convention of the N.A.A.C.P. in Philadelphia last month, he sounded like the leader I’ve been waiting to hear since his first inauguration in 2009. It was almost as if Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” and the former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. had hacked his computer and collaborated on his speech.

Many of Mr. Obama’s admirers and critics have hungered for straight talk on race since his election. But since taking office, the president had been skittish on the subject and had mostly let it lapse into disturbing silence.

As we prepare to mark the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., this country continues to grapple with what feels like an onslaught of black death.

But now we are doing it with a president — our first African-American president — who has found a confident voice on race.

What led to his racial renaissance? And, more important, how can this shift be more than words? Beyond his incisive rhetoric and funding for police body cameras, can he take action that will leave the black citizens of this country better off when their first black president leaves office?

I believe the same confidence that has led the president to not only change his tune, but sing in a far more comfortable register, will lead to the necessary action: greater federal pressure on police departments, for example, further Justice Department investigations of police units plagued by racial bias and comprehensive judicial reform that removes from local prosecutors the decision to charge a cop in the killing of an unarmed civilian.

In large part, the president’s shift is the surge of history, the play of contingent factors that reveal, even force, a president’s hand, rushing him to the bully pulpit in ways that only a few months ago may have been inconceivable. Police killings of unarmed black citizens and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have pushed the president in the right direction, along with a steady undercurrent of principled black criticism.

It is easy to understand the president’s initial hesitation to engage race. The last thing he wanted to do, initially, was offer the nation a self-portrait of presidential leadership that drew exclusively from color. The right wing had made furious efforts to demonize him as a man unworthy of assuming the mantle of national leadership. The assaults from political figures who portrayed him as a cipher, or a monkey or, later, the police officers who cracked jokes at his expense, proved the toxic atmosphere.

“I am subject to constant criticism all day long,” the president told me in an Oval Office interview back in 2010. “And some of it may be legitimate; much of it may be illegitimate. Some of it may be sincere; some of it may be entirely politically motivated. If I spent all my time thinking about it, I’d be paralyzed. And frankly the voters would justifiably say, ‘I need somebody who’s focused on giving me a job, not whether his feelings are hurt.’ ” Mr. Obama said then that a great deal of the resistance he faced from the Tea Party had more to do with anti-government emotions rather than strict racial animus, even as he understood how the two intertwined. “Are there probably elements within that movement that focus on my race? I think that’s probably the case. I don’t remember any other president who was challenged about where he was born despite having a birth certificate.”

The president often practiced the politics of racial sublimation: He took the energy of race and redistributed it over the political landscape in a host of racially neutral projects — Obamacare, primarily — which could have racial benefits without an overt message of aiming policy at minority communities. This was an uneasy alliance of amnesia and avoidance, and no matter the surface calm, racial tensions were percolating beneath. When they erupted in police killings and black resistance, Mr. Obama’s path to public proclamation was cleared.

Bracing racial rhetoric, in tandem with targeted public policy, can make a big difference in how race is lived. The president has already made a push for prison reform. In his N.A.A.C.P. address, he argued that instead of devoting $80 billion to incarceration, we could invest in pre-K and jobs for teenagers, both of which would return the investment far more grandly than a life diminished behind bars.

Mr. Obama has also sought to aggressively enforce legal bans on residential discrimination — making cities accountable for the use of federal housing funds to reduce racial disparities. He has finally become more willing to grant pardons to prisoners who were often unjustly saddled with life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

And in light of the hostilities between minority groups and the police, the president summoned a group to recommend incremental changes, some of which he adopted, such as the call for body cameras. Each effort is commendable and in some ways overdue. But something bigger is called for.

We need a new Kerner Commission report that is updated for our day, paying special attention to how black people are viciously targeted by unethical police practices. It’s true that calling for a commission might not seem like the most systematic fix. But a serious investment in assessing the state of inequality and systemic racism in America — numbers behind the trends the president spoke about when he eloquently eulogized the slain Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney in Charleston, S.C., in June — will show us clearly what work is left. And it will be harder to ignore, less ephemeral than mourning or protests.

In our conversation several years ago, the president told me that he aimed to speak about values that everyone could rally around. “At its base what’s always been strongest about the civil rights movement has been when it said, ‘Yes, there is a unique problem here that arises out of race and slavery and segregation. But when you lock us up, you’re imprisoning yourself in some fashion,’ ” he said.

Last November, the nation saw the spectacle of a black president giving a news conference on one side of a television split screen while in Ferguson, tear gas and sirens swirled around a crowd protesting the failure of a grand jury to indict a police officer in the death of an unarmed black teenager. Mr. Obama was stern, his gaunt visage strained by the relentless thrum of events, events that possessed a remorseless logic of black suffering as their end.

The president appeared to be, as he had often stated, not the president of black America, but, instead, the president of the United States, which seemed to be disuniting as he spoke.

In the months since, he has found a way to be both the president of all America while speaking with special urgency on life for black Americans. When Mr. Obama is free to tell the truth about race and the condition of black America, he is free to be the best president he can be.

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