President Obama Isn't the Man to Lead a Conversation About Race

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His cautious comments about the Trayvon Martin case were pitch perfect -- but calls for him to say more are misguided.

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Has President Obama's election made it more difficult to talk about race in America? That's the claim that Reniqua Allen makes in a recent Washington Post op-ed. Early on, she shares an anecdote that ends with one of her friends citing the blackness of the man in the White House as evidence that racism isn't any longer a problem in America. But the core of her complaint is as follows:

The Trayvon Martin story flared up exactly four years after Obama's famous campaign speech on race in Philadelphia, a speech that made so many of us believe that Obama would launch a serious, enduring dialogue.

But the election of the first black president hasn't made it easier to talk about race in America. It's made it harder. Obama's measured words on Friday only highlighted how removed the president seems from the candidate who gave that stirring speech on race four years ago. Obama was asked directly about "allegations of lingering racism in our society," but he shied away. He rightly used caution in talking about a case that the Justice Department is investigating, and he offered a moving sentiment for Martin's parents, saying, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon." But he hasn't grappled with this tragedy, or with racial disparities and divisions, along with us, guiding us in a way that only he can -- as the commander in chief, as a lawyer, as a community leader and as a black man.

Although I share the intuition that an ongoing conversation about race is necessary in America, I emphatically disagree that it is best led by Obama, a politician whose rhetoric is inevitably going to be shaped by electoral concerns, and who inspires, by virtue of America's culture of partisanship, a healthy amount of irrational opposition to whatever it is that he says. In today's political world, a president is invariably ill-suited to bringing Americans together on a controversial subject that divides them -- and even less able to contribute nuance to fraught conversations -- because opponents have a powerful incentive to distort his meaning. (And they often succeed.)  

Nor do we need the president to lead on this. Private citizens are perfectly capable of shaping the national discourse. White, black, Latino, Asian, or otherwise, people outside government have a comparative advantage here. We aren't limited in the same way as a pol, and we're unable to contribute to matters of national import on which the president ought to focus: executing the laws, being commander-in-chief of the military, and appointing judges, for example.

There is, finally, the fact that Obama, like any individual, has only his own conception of race in America to guide him. He has shared it eloquently in the past. But a nation as diverse as ours includes a staggering variety of perspectives on the subject. A national conversation about race must reflect that diversity if mutual understanding is to be increased. Hence the danger of yearning for a single national leader to direct the conversation as he sees fit. In this way too, the conversation is best advanced by a multitude of private citizens engaging one another, as opposed to an articulation of insights from on high.

Obama once gave a very good speech once about race in America, where he explained his own place in this melting pot nation. Now it's our turn to tackle the subject.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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