Who's Afraid of the Big Black Wolf? Race and Presidential Politics

"To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else."

-Theodore Roosevelt

We would do well to heed President's Roosevelt's words today. They assume a robust conception of democratic life - that the sentiments of Americans are not so easily manipulated; that our responsibility for our way of life extends beyond our own selfish concerns. That with rights come responsibilities, and with freedom comes duty.

The history of African American struggle has added to this view that everyday, ordinary folk can transform the order of things; that a gathering of committed persons can make a real difference and meaningfully extend the body of rights and the scope of freedom for all of us.

If we take seriously this democratic ideal, how must we evaluate this administration's stance on issues of race?

To be honest, President Obama is scared. He refuses to substantively engage the bare fact that race continues to haunt our society, even when pushed to do so by racial incidents or manufactured news stories. He appears to believe that his own race can serve as a proxy for genuine concern. But the truth needs to be told.

In his Urban League address, Obama dismissed the idea of a national dialogue about race (commissions, academic symposia, etc. are cast aside as ineffective). He suggested instead that genuine conversations about race should take place around water coolers at work and at dining room tables. While it is true this sort of talk is meaningful and needed, we must also publicly address the persistence of racial inequality. Refusing to do so renders the subject, to a certain extent at least, a private matter - a matter of our hearts instead of policy.

But to think about our "racial habits of the heart" as a private matter is to lose sight of how those habits - and the dispositions and distributions that follow from them -- impact policy. In dismissing a national response to the persistence of racial inequality, President Obama neglects to address a persistent failing in the promise of American democracy. Our loyalty to the American public, and our obligations as citizens, should lead us to hold him to account for this neglect. Civic virtue demands as much.

Some suggest that the racially tinged attacks on the President from the right, and the mere fact of his blackness should protect him from any critiques on issues of race. Such claims are absurd. As the President of the United States, Obama is entrusted with the responsibility to navigate us through all of our national challenges. Of course, we should be sensitive to his particular challenge as the first African American president, but we must be responsive to the millions of Americans whose fates are also highly determined by their racial group membership. Silence, to echo President Roosevelt, would be "morally treasonous."

Race continues to matter, and reveals its manipulations in employment, housing, health, education and criminal justice. African Americans have an unemployment rate that is double that of the national average.

African Americans can expect to live 6 years fewer than other Americans and there are nearly one million incarcerated Black people in the United States. The force of racial inequality is heightened further in the impact of this economic downturn. We might all be on a sinking ship, but for those under the deck, the water engulfs more quickly.

President Obama and those in his administration seem to have made the political calculation that any serious talk about racial inequality would doom his presidency. If he does talk about race, his method has been one of indirection: a "lifting all boats" strategy.

Such an approach renders invisible the way race continues to impact the life chances of fellow citizens and deepens our national neurosis. If we follow this path, Americans, irrespective of whether they or racist or not, will continue to make the choices that result in racial inequalities.

President Obama is not unique in this approach. In general, the ideal of democratic life is being held captive by triangulating politicians in the White House and the relentless pursuit of greed throughout the rest of the country. But who would have thought that under our first African American president, race matters would be worse?

So what is required of us in this moment?

The burden lies on us to refuse political calculation when it stands in the stead of honest dialogue and political responsibility -- whether it comes from Republicans or Democrats, tea partiers, or our President. The words of Walt Whitman come to mind: "a nation like ours...is not served by the best men only but sometimes more by those that provoke it--by the combat they arouse." We must address directly racial inequality in this country. And such an effort would not amount to a call for reparations, as John McWhorter suggests rather, it would be a genuine effort to usher in a new era for our nation.