President Obama Isn't Bringing Race Into National Controversies

His rare comments on the subject have addressed widely discussed stories and aimed to bridge differences.
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In National Review, John R. Lott Jr. accuses President Obama of repeatedly "interjecting" race into law-enforcement issues, including George Zimmerman's trial for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, even as he ignores cases where blacks violently attack whites because of their race.

There isn't much I like about Obama's presidency. But the way he handles race and racial controversy is one of them.

Race is among the most contentious subjects in America. Many people are going to disagree with any president's particular take, whatever it happens to be. But agree or disagree with Obama, he deserves credit for expressing his decidedly moderate racial views in a measured, responsible fashion. His speeches on race are among the finest of his presidency not because every idea expressed is necessarily correct, but because he makes an earnest effort to understand and air the perspectives of Americans with very different life experiences and world views.

Critiquing his analysis is totally legitimate. Taking offense at it is a sign that you take offense too easily. And it's especially absurd to write as if Obama himself is the one "interjecting" race into stories that were already national news and racially fraught before he ever commented on them. 

Even if Lott were correct that the Gates and Zimmerman cases had nothing to do with race, the fact would remain that most of the American media and tens of millions of U.S. citizens disagree. That Obama holds mainstream, center-left views on those subjects is unremarkable. What's important is that he's made a concerted effort to speak in a way that brings people together and reduces polarization, in contrast to someone like Rush Limbaugh, who decided that the racially tense period surrounding the Zimmerman trial was the right moment for him to say "nigga."

There are plenty of racial provocateurs in America, on the left and right. There are also plenty of people on both sides who made absurd statements during the Gates and Zimmerman controversies. That's why singling out Obama for criticism in either realm is so unfair and nonsensical. Overall, I think he's been a bad leader, but when it comes to the hugely difficult task of speaking as the first black president in a racially polarized country, with all the pressure that entails from a hundred different directions, he's done better in his rhetoric than anyone could've asked.

That isn't to say that all the race-related stories that get elevated to national subjects of discussion are worthy of it, or that no obscure story deserves more attention than it has already gotten. But Obama doesn't control the stories that make national headlines. And given how rare black-on-white killings are in America, as well as the fact that they're almost universally condemned and result in quick arrests whenever possible, I don't see any compelling reason for the president to elevate one, even if it would make some conservatives feel better.

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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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