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