Barack Obama is often referred to as our first black president, but I have thought of him as our first black and white president. His background, experience and personal gifts combine to make whites like myself believe he not only empathizes with the concerns of blacks when it comes to racial issues, but also the concerns of whites. Without that quality, he could not have been elected.
In case you haven’t heard, he displayed that capacity yesterday in a surprise visit to the White House Press Corp as described by Philip Rucker and Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post (on-line).
“President Obama implored Americans on Friday to “do some soul-searching” in the aftermath of the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Florida, speaking expansively and introspectively about the nation’s painful history of race and his own place in it.
Directly wading into the polarizing debate over last weekend’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Obama tried to explain the case through the lens of past discrimination that still weighs heavily on African Americans.
The nation’s first black president, recognizing the disconnect between how whites and blacks were reacting to the Zimmerman verdict, sought to explain why the acquittal had upset so many African Americans.
“I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” Obama said.
Since the Zimmerman court decision, the discussion of the issue on MSNBC has been dominated by black pundits, implying you have to be black to really understand the racial nuances of the case. At least one called for a national dialogue on race and democracy, which I welcome as long as it is a real dialogue he is seeking.
But he is a professor who seemed to be inviting we whites to an ongoing seminar in which he and other black intellectuals are going to enlighten us as to the many facets of our racism, conscious or otherwise. No thanks.
If a real dialogue is to develop on issues that are in black and white, a tone must be set that reflects empathy with the fears, anger and prejudices of both races.
In his surprising address yesterday, the president set such a tone: