Valerie Jarrett: Why Should Obama Bear the Burden of Talking About Race?

One of the president's closest advisors defends him against the charge that he has held back when addressing the subject.


On the main stage Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, echoed a criticism of President Obama that a number of his supporters have voiced. "Some of us feel that there was an opportunity for this president to really deal passionately, vocally, and without putting a muffled hand in front of the microphone, on the issue of race," he said. "And the president only did it half way. He was always holding back. He's got 16 months. Is this going to be the passion of the final stretch?"

The question was put to Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president. She pointed out that the president has dedicated a number of prominent speeches to the subject of race––but also questioned why the burden to speak about the subject of race should fall on Obama.

"I think you have to ask yourself, why is that all on him?" she said. "Why is that his responsibility? I feel that each of us should be willing to have that conversation and I think where he has thought it would be helpful. He gave an amazing speech about race in the midst of a hotly contested primary race that was deeply personal and open. He talked about race after Trayvon Martin's death––he said that if I had a son, he would look like that.

"My Brother's Keeper grew out of the Zimmerman verdict. The president said we all have to do some soul searching to figure out, how are we treating one another. After Ferguson, he spoke very powerfully and then created a task force to focus on forging closer relationships between police departments and the communities they serve or protect–– particularly communities of color that have experienced disparate treatment over the years. So I think he has done a fair amount of talking. The question is what are *we* going to do. Let us take the burden off of him solely, because it is a collective responsibility.

"This is not something that the president can say, because the country elected him president, that suddenly, all of our history just evaporates. It doesn't. This has to happen family by family. It has to happen at the water cooler. That young man [who murdered 9 people in the attack on a historically black Charleston church] did not create that terrible act of violence in a vacuum. He was raised. He was in a community. He was part of society."