Why is it that, despite being one of the most gifted orators on race in America, President Obama rarely addresses the issue? In the September issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a whirlwind essay on the many ironies of Barack Obama's presidency. One in particular is his consistent avoidance of race despite the heavy focus it garners in his two memoirs and personal life, especially given that "he is the first president who could credibly teach a black-studies class," as Coates writes.
One of the answers Coates points to is the way his words on race are twisted in the current political environment. Any time Obama invokes race, the issue becomes toxic. In particular, Coates gives a fascinating media cycle examination of the effect of Obama's brief statements about Trayvon Martin's death earlier this year, which turned the issue from a non-partisan national tragedy to a bitter partisan trench war. Per Coates:
Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.) Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.
The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.