On race issue, Obama remains firmly low-key

As a black man who has felt the sting of prejudice, President Obama is not only empathetic but uniquely positioned to advance the cause of equality in a country where skin color remains, for many, a barrier to opportunity and achievement.

Yet throughout his career, Obama has been careful to avoid being pigeonholed as serving mainly the interest of African Americans; otherwise, he never would have been elected in November.

The result is a duality to Obama’s presidency. He brings aspects of the black experience into the White House -- using occasional street slang, installing a bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Oval Office. But he tries to keep enough distance from racial issues -- transcendence may be his way of seeing it -- to avoid undermining the notion of a colorblind administration.

It is not easy, even for one as deft as Obama, as the latest national debate over race and politics suggests.


Some black leaders are frustrated that the president has failed to confront what they view as his most ardent critics’ racism, a charge that gained widespread acceptance, if not credence, when leveled last week by President Carter.

If the current president fails to speak out, said Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist and former political advisor to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, “then who is supposed to exercise the moral leadership?”

Obama, however, shows little desire to wade into the mire of racial politics.

In an unprecedented series of interviews with the Sunday news shows, aimed at promoting healthcare reform, the nation’s first black president could not avoid talking about race. He was repeatedly asked if he felt prejudice was fueling antipathy toward his presidency. Each time he delivered a variation of the same modulated message: Yes, there are people who don’t like him because he is African American, but no, that’s not the main reason his administration has drawn such fierce criticism.


“It’s an argument that’s gone on for the history of this republic, and that is, ‘What’s the right role of government?’ ” Obama told NBC’s David Gregory. “This is not a new argument, and it always invokes passions.”

The same, of course, could be said about race, which has vexed politicians since the Founding Fathers wrestled, inconclusively, with slavery. But, typically, Obama has confronted race head-on only when circumstance demanded -- such as when his candidacy was threatened by ties to his former pastor, the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

When Obama spoke up this summer in the racially fraught case of Henry Louis Gates Jr., saying police “acted stupidly” by arresting the black scholar in his Cambridge, Mass., home, many whites were put off. On reflection, Obama called his remarks ill-considered and sat down at the White House for beers with Vice President Joe Biden, Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer.

By contrast, his comments on the Sunday shows were perhaps most noteworthy for how tepid they seemed -- especially compared with the visceral outburst of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) during Obama’s speech to Congress and the incandescent anger at rowdy town hall meetings and last weekend’s protest march on the Capitol.


Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said the president is attempting “a balancing act” that Morial first witnessed decades ago when his own father, Ernest, became New Orleans’ mayor.

“What Barack Obama is experiencing is quite similar to what the first black mayors of major American cities went through 20 or more years ago,” said Morial, who later became New Orleans mayor himself. “It’s just when it happened to a Maynard Jackson or a Morial or a Coleman Young, it didn’t play out in the national media in such a major way.”

There will always be an enigmatic quality to the study of Obama’s personal tastes and his political instincts. On one hand, as the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, he comes from an eclectic cultural background, which is reflected in his wide-ranging palette of interests. “Because he’s been a part of so many worlds, it’s given him the ability to be comfortable in many different ones,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in an interview.

Obama’s historic position is not lost on him, Gibbs went on, and with it comes an unparalleled opportunity “to deliver messages others couldn’t.”


There is undeniably greater weight when a black president goes to, say, an inner city school and urges parents to turn off the TV and Xbox and make their children study. Or when he appears before the NAACP and says too many blacks have “internalized a sense of limitation” and “come to expect so little from the world and from themselves.”

“No excuses!” Obama exhorted that audience. “No excuses!”

But Gibbs and others call it an overreach to suggest the president is trying to make a point when, for instance, he uses slang -- “Naw, we straight,” he told the cashier, refusing change at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a black hangout in Washington -- or invokes the black rapper Jay-Z, or accompanies his wife to a play by August Wilson, the epic chronicler of the African American experience.

“He’s not trying to prove anything,” said Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and advisor to both the president and First Lady Michelle Obama. “He’s not trying to take a political calculus on what he does. He’s being himself.”


Perhaps so. Still, at least some African Americans read much into even the smallest of Obama’s actions, especially in an age when virtually nothing a president says or does is left to chance.

Obama’s gestures -- a quote from poet Langston Hughes here, a reference to the South Side of Chicago there -- “is alerting people who would be aware of such things to listen and hear him say, ‘Hey, I’m still the guy,’ ” said Michael Fauntroy, a George Mason University expert on race and politics. (Not that Obama need worry about his support in the black community. As his overall poll numbers sag, the president continues to enjoy about 90% approval among African Americans.)

Bernard J. Tyson, for one, appreciates what he considers Obama’s subtle signals because, he said, they relate to his own experience as an African American.

Tyson, a Kaiser Permanente vice president in Oakland, fixes on details like the hip-hop on the presidential iPod, and feels a kinship with Obama as an African American who works in a mostly white world. The president, he said, celebrates black culture and values without necessarily putting them front and center, the same way Tyson values “my heritage and history” without trying to press larger racial issues on his co-workers.


Thousands of miles away, James Young also keeps close tabs on Obama.

In May, Young became the first black mayor of Philadelphia, Miss., a predominantly white town probably best known as the place where three civil rights workers were kidnapped and murdered in 1964. Since taking office, Young has dealt with rumors he would give blacks a hiring edge at City Hall, or deliver the best services to African American neighborhoods.

But, Young said, he -- and Obama, for that matter -- will succeed only by pursuing policies that benefit black and white constituents equally; there are plenty of things they have in common, starting with the economy.

“What is a black issue?” Young asked. “Unemployment? Well, is that not a white issue, too?”


At bottom, many agree. The best thing Obama can do to advance the cause of civil rights, said Gibbs and others, is simple: It’s not about being a black president. It’s being a successful president.