Posted on March 18, 2009

A Year After Race Speech, Silence

Nia-Malika Henderson and Carrie Budoff Brown, The Politico, March 18, 2009

It was a year ago today that Barack Obama, then a candidate for president fearing a divisive racial backlash over his pastor, took to the stage in Philadelphia and said it was time to have a new conversation about race.

“We have a choice in this country,” Obama said that day. “We can tackle race only as spectacle–as we did in the O.J. trial–or in the wake of tragedy–as we did in the aftermath of Katrina–or as fodder for the nightly news. . . . That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.'”

But in the year since that speech–through campaign and convention, election and Inauguration–Barack Obama hasn’t taken part in the discussion of race in America in any sustained way, the way he did that day in Philadelphia to get out of a campaign jam.


Rep. Barbara Lee, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the speech was a benchmark that “set forth a road map on how to look at race within the context of public policy.”

But it’s an approach that leaves some of Obama’s black supporters wanting more–and some analysts saying Obama’s method is something of a cop-out, in a nation where racial questions still burn every day. It was Obama’s own Attorney General Eric Holder, in fact, who said the U.S is a “nation of cowards” on race.


The White House declined to answer why Obama hasn’t spoken more, and more directly about race in light of the speech. But speaking more generally, his closest aides in the White House say Obama’s approach fits perfectly with his overall approach to race, both personally and on the campaign trail. They say that anyone expecting that Obama would talk repeatedly in racial terms, or be a kind of stern black father figure, in the mold of Bill Cosby, pointing up the ills of black America, will be disappointed.

The presidential bully pulpit isn’t likely to be regularly used that way, they say.

“Because he is the first African-American president, that achievement resonates more deeply with African-Americans,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama and one of his closest aides. “We met with the [Congressional Black Caucus] and he talked about the importance of nutrition and weight control, because obesity is a huge challenge in the black community and it’s easier for an African-American to say that than someone who isn’t. It’s easier for him to say, ‘Pull up your pants.'”

But so far, as president, he hasn’t waded into any of those discussions, preferring instead to simply serve as a kind of über role model–something Michelle Obama has embraced too, acknowledging that she gives African-American women a different sort of dream to aspire to.


On Capitol Hill, some black Democrats say they have been surprised the nation’s racial conversation hasn’t come further since that day in Philadelphia, or that day in Washington two months ago when Obama took the oath of office.

They don’t blame Obama–and in fact, say he’s got so much on his plate fixing the economy that it’s not realistic for him to lead a deeper national conversation about race.


NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said he’s less worried about what Obama says about race and is focused on his policies, which so far, he said, are going in the right direction. “We are eager to have a conversation. We are just more eager to see progress made on specific policy, changes made in people’s lives,” he said.


To be sure, Obama has spoken about race since being elected president–though often to black interviewers from black publications, like Ebony or Black Enterprise. He gave his most expansive answer on his view of race to the New York Times two Sundays ago, rebuking Holder on the “cowards” comment. During the campaign, he gave a Father’s Day speech where he called on black fathers to be present in their children’s lives.

And when he does speak of race, he does it much in the way he did in the Philadelphia speech: saying that education, health care and the economy are “problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.”


“I think what solves racial tensions is fixing the economy, putting people to work, making sure that people have health care, ensuring that every kid is learning out here,” he said. “I think if we do that, then we’ll probably have more fruitful conversations.”


[Editor’s Note: The text of candidate Obama’s “More Perfect Union” race speech given in Philadelphia last year can be read here.]