On race, President Obama can unite us

Critics were quick to call President Obama a “race-baiter” after he addressed the nation Friday about Trayvon Martin’s killing and what it’s like for young black males in this country who, he said, “are painted with a broad brush.”

“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said, reflecting on how he too was a victim of racial profiling during his younger, pre-senator years.

Obama’s reflection on race didn’t resonate with everyone, though. At a march in Houston on Sunday, supporters of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer acquitted in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Martin, took Obama to task.

“He’s supposed to be a president who unites us instead of dividing us,” Scott Harmon, a Zimmerman defender, told Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske.


“I’m tired of this country being separated by race,” agreed Jeffrey Williams. “It’s separating the whole country. It’s not about black and white; it’s about wrong and right.”

There’s a wrong and a right, all right. And Obama was right to confront issues of race that affect our whole country; and he was right to talk about race not in “us versus them” terms but as a societal issue, one with mutual understanding and shared responsibility. Here’s the transcript, if you want to give it a closer read.

Commenting on Obama’s address, New York Times’ Op-Ed columnist Charles M. Blow agreed with the president that “all parties must acknowledge and accept their role in the problems for us to solve them.” And Blow praised Obama too:

That’s why there was value in the president of the United States acknowledging his “two-ness” on Friday and connecting with Trayvon Martin — because we can never lose sight of the fact that biases and stereotypes and violence are part of a black man’s burden in America, no matter that man’s station.


It might make us uncomfortable or frustrated to acknowledge that this is still a reality in a country that elected -- and reelected -- a black president, but the truth is that we’re not yet a post-racial society. There’s a lot of work to be done at the top, which includes confronting our criminal justice system and the disproportionate jobless rates among young black males.

But we can’t ignore the basics. “I think it’s time to have a national conversation on race that’s not politically correct, that allows all of us -- white, black, brown, red -- to get off our chest the things that are affecting our racial conversation,” Carol Swain, a political science and law professor at Vanderbilt University, argued Friday on PBS’ “NewsHour.” So, rather than tiptoe around it, Swain, a mother of two black boys, also acknowledged that black people are sometimes suspicious of black males.

In addition to having a conversation that broadens our understanding of one another, we also have to be good and compassionate citizens.

As Erin Aubry Kaplan argued in our Op-Ed pages over the weekend: “Pulling back from the philosophical extremes that all Americans — black, white and other — have accepted for far too long as normal will take much more than another report or retooled initiative. Real and sustained change on the racial equality front has to be a family effort, an effort of the entire dysfunctional American family to which we all belong.”



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