America's First African-American Non-Black President

If President Obama leaves office without being more assertive in using his bully pulpit to try to engage the country in a more permanent and comprehensive understanding of the issues of race, then I believe historians and history will look back on his administration and assert that he missed a great opportunity.
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Five years ago, after supporting Hillary Clinton in the primaries because I felt in April and May that she would be the strongest candidate the Democrats could run in November, I enthusiastically supported Barack Obama when he won the primary race for president.

And once we faced the economic meltdown of the weekend of September 15th in 2008, I was more confident of an Obama victory as the new economic reality changed the focus of the election away from being a referendum examination of Barack Obama and issues like Reverend Jeremiah Wright and over to being a referendum on John McCain and tying him into a link to the Bush Administration and issues like Americans saving their homes and keeping their jobs.

And yes, I had tears in my eyes the night Obama won the presidency and again during the Inaugural. I did not have tears in my eyes during the re-election night victory nor during the second Inaugural as it was more like let's get down to finishing the job at hand.

But I guess we have come full circle as I'm almost in tears again as I watch our president let day after day go by without engaging America to try to understand what is really happening with the Trayvon Martin tragedy and the trial verdict -- or at least to see him engage the country in more of a "conversation" about race and how race does intersect with the facts and realities of the Martin trial -- and yes, friends, race has been a factor in this trial and the events leading up to the trial and it is simply naive for so many involved in the trial and the case to assert that race has not been a factor.

We really need that conversation, and it needs to be an ongoing conversation, and it seems everybody calls for it at moments like this and then they wait a week or so and get back to the strong market recovery and the new housing boom.

In fact, I have been calling for this conversation for the last several years with or without an incident that is making headline news at any given time, and Don Imus and I have literally been perhaps the only tandem pair of Black and White on-air personalities to discuss issues of "race" consistently -- and without being motivated by a specific crisis and, most importantly, without being limited to just the negative and difficult aspects of the issue as we often discuss non controversial and even more humorous aspects of the issue as well.

But at times like this, we need a president like Teddy Roosevelt, who understood that the presidency is a "bully pulpit" as he termed it, and who was able to use the symbolic influence of the presidency to move the American people in directions of understanding and progress particularly on social issues. And of course since the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, his cousin FDR did this most effectively in his "Fireside Chats," and certainly both Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton were effective and successful in engaging the American people in conversations that they led as president to help shape the discussion and engage the country.

But we have a president like Teddy Roosevelt today in Barack Obama, and he has proven that he has the ability and the courage to lead the American people in understanding issues of importance and issues of change that he feels will make the country better.

And as an African-American president, I would think that our president would feel an even greater desire and responsibility to use his "bully pulpit" to try to make the Trayvon Martin case and verdict a "learning experience" for all Americans on so difficult a subject as "race" in America.

I bit my tongue and understood during the president's first term that his advisors carried the day in convincing him that with the economy is in such bad shape, the president could not afford politically to potentially alienate significant segments of the electorate by being an advocate for addressing head on issues of race. I didn't feel comfortable with that approach, but as a political analyst I most certainly understood it.

But now we are in the second term, and there are no more elections or campaigns for Barack Obama, and its legacy time. And his legacy will certainly be marked if he doesn't use this extraordinary opportunity as an African-American president to do more to engage the American people in at least trying to understand issues of race in this country with more sensitivity and desire to learn and change, on both sides, than we have seen in the past.

And what better opportunity to attempt this than the Trayvon Martin case and the ensuing verdict, which riveted the country for several days in discussion and focus on the verdict and the underlying issue of race that profoundly affected it.

You don't have to take sides in the Trayvon Martin case or verdict to understand that nowhere in American should a person with a loaded gun be able to walk up to you and without identifying themselves as a member of some type of authorized law enforcement entity start questioning you about your activities when you are not engaged in some type of active or visibly discernible criminal activity. And the president could lead that conversation.

And you don't have to take sides in the Martin case or verdict to understand that "Stand Your Ground" legislation needs further review and re-visiting and must be aligned with a greater sense of responsibility and a "higher bar" of tolerance as to what circumstances justify taking the actions embraced by those statutes.

First of all, "Stand Your Ground" sounds like a Republic Pictures shoot-em-up release featuring John Wayne, Randolph Scott and Glenn Ford -- I think it's nonsense. But I am willing to concede that in a discussion about it there could be a justification that could be explained and a compromise could be reached to accommodate the legitimate concerns of both sides. And the president could lead that conversation.

And you don't have to take sides in the Martin case or verdict to understand that we really do need a conversation nationally in this country to better understand the difficulties in what defense attorney Mark O'Meara was suggesting when he said that the "Martin case would never have gone to trial if it weren't for the media focus and attention" that was directed at this tragedy. And the president should lead that conversation.

Most White American parents probably agree with Attorney O'Meara, while millions of African-American parents hope and pray that if it were their son the media would devote the same amount of attention in their case as they did with Trayvon. Why? Because they fear that without it O'Meara was right, and any travesty of justice that took place against their son would be ignored or swept under the rug -- we need a conversation on that.

And we need any president to use the "bully pulpit" to engage us all and try to foster more understanding and tolerance on all sides in the country. And an African-American president -- it should be an open and shut case as to a president in that category getting more involved.

Hillary Clinton has been more vocal and outspoken on the Martin verdict and the aftermath than our president, and she may be running again and he isn't.

President Obama has been more aggressive on gay rights than he has on civil rights, and to a large extent, his proactive stance on this issue has resulted in our country making more rapid change and progress in increasing tolerance and understanding of this issue than perhaps for any other social issue or campaign in the history of America, including civil rights.

I support the president's aggressiveness on gay rights, but I do not support the lack of it on civil rights.

When Barack Obama leaves office the next president, regardless of party affiliation, will be White, and so will likely the next president after that. If President Obama leaves office without being more assertive in using his bully pulpit to try to engage the country in a more permanent and comprehensive understanding of the issues of race, then I believe historians and history will look back on his administration and assert that he missed a great opportunity.

People used to say that Bill Clinton was our "first Black president." That's because he acted like it. If we don't get more assertiveness from Barack Obama, they may say he was the first non-black African-American president. Come on Mr. President -- Stand Your Ground!

Carl Jeffers is a Los Angeles based columnist, TV political analyst, radio commentator, and a national lecturer and business consultant. Jeffers is President of Intelli Marketing Associates. E-mail:

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