Open Memo to President Barack Obama

A Presidential National Commission of Race and Reconciliation is something you should now seriously consider, President Obama. If not you, who? If not now, when?
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cc: First Lady Michelle Obama, Advisors David Axelrod, Ms. Melody Barnes, Robert Gibbs, Ms. Valerie Jarrett, et al

From: Clarence B. Jones

Re: Sgt. James Crowley and Professor Henry Louis Gates

Date: July 27th, 2009

In a short period of time, more comment and "advice" has probably been offered on the above subject than any other matter crossing the president's desk since inauguration. It's come from print, electronic media and political pundits. My reaction to this outpouring of debate? Well, at least we're talking about it.

Did Professor Gates handle things perfectly? No. Is it possible he saw an opportunity to acerbate the situation and shine a brighter light on the problem? Did Sgt. Crowley, in spite of his superb record of training and raising other officers' awareness on the dangers of racial profiling, overreact in arresting Professor Gates in the premises of his own home? Possibly. This is not the core of the issue, however.

Because race relations in the United States is the giant elephant sitting in the national living rooms of America. Everyone knows it's there; few want to acknowledge it's presence. In a speech commemorating "Black History Month" Attorney General Eric Holder (an African-American) said, "In things racial we have always been, and I believe continue to be, a nation of cowards." He was criticized for such remarks. A classic example of the need to kill the messenger. He's right, of course, and the fact that at this late date there is a message that still requires delivery is a reminder of how historically afflicted we are with amnesia about race in America.

Our country has moved from a Civil War through post-Civil War "Reconstruction," through the institution of racial segregation, through the Supreme Court-mandated end of public education segregation, through the Civil Rights Movement, 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and finally landed here -- with the election of an African-American president in 2008. Somehow, against all reason, this long road has been traversed without ever having provided a political structure or process to engage in a sustained and deliberate national dialogue about the historical consequences of slavery and segregation in America.

Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress had the wisdom and the courage to understand that it would be impossible for there to be a sustained and peaceful transition of governing from apartheid to a multiracial South African society based on equal justice before the law without the new South African government providing a mechanism for people publicly and nationally to confront the past abuses of apartheid and its probable future consequences in new South Africa. Thus, his creation of a national "Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

I am not suggesting that the issues of race raised by "Crowley Gates" can only be addressed by the establishment of some kind of post-slavery, post-racial segregation "Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

I am suggesting, however, the idea of designing a mechanism to solve an obvious, concrete and urgent problem is an American tradition. We didn't ignore the obstacles of World War II; we began the Manhattan Project and developed a tool to confront them. Why should the endemic issue of cultural racism be treated instead by continually lying to ourselves about its existence?

President Obama, you might want to revisit and reconsider the efforts effort undertaken by President Clinton in 1998 in his "President's Initiative On Race: Taking Action To Help Build One America." Notwithstanding the advice and counsel of such an eminent historian as Professor John Hope Franklin (and others), this initiative, by an elected white southern president, encountered resistance and some criticism.

However, 2009 is qualitatively different. Successfully running a "color blind," race-neutral or racially agnostic campaign for president is different from governing as the first elected African-American president. As president, you cannot be racially agnostic or "neutral." As president of the United States, in the face of actual or apparent racism, morally you cannot sit on the fence. You must confront our national elephant and enable a national dialogue about the day to day exercise of police power in communities across America and it documented consequences on African-American and Hispanic men.

Mr. President, you seem to instinctively and politically know this. Yes, it is so: commenting on the Crowley Gates incident, is "part of your portfolio."

Despite looming issues of health care, the banking crises, Jobs Recovery Programs or Afghanistan, the giant elephant of race in America's living room remains, casting its shadow across our nation, and possibly the success of your own re-election. You run the risk of eroding your moral capital and credibility if you refuse to finally constructively find a way to tackle this issue head-on.

Moreover, I respectfully suggest you unavoidably risk diminution and erosion of your political capital if you fail to exert -- no -- seize the leadership on issue of race relations in America. A Presidential National Commission of Race and Reconciliation is something you should now seriously consider.

If not you, who? If not now, when? Congress passing a resolution "apologizing" for slavery is not enough. Not even close.

Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates having a beer at the White House with you is an important symbolic gesture. Perhaps all across America, on the day when this is scheduled, a police officer and a black or Hispanic man should have a beer together in their respective communities.

Yeah, I know it sounds hokey. But something must be done to enable us as a nation to acknowledge the presence of the giant elephant. It's not going to leave our house without presidential leadership. It's not going to leave until we as a nation have the courage to lead it from our living rooms, and out of the front door of our national house, once and for all. It starts with you, President Obama.

Clarence B. Jones, author of What Would Martin Say? is the Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Educational Institute at Stanford University. He was counsel, advisor and draft speechwriter for Martin Luther King, Jr.

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