Obama's welcome call for soul-searching about race

Thomas Schaller says the Zimmerman verdict led the president to raise issues that are uncomfortable for Americans

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President Barack Obama is right: All Americans could benefit from some soul-searching about race in America. This is not a message that many white Americans — or many nonwhite Americans — want to hear. The only thing people like less than being told to do some soul-searching is being told they're racist.

In his speech last week following the George Zimmerman trial verdict, the president didn't use the term "racist," even if the label accurately applies to more of us than we care to admit. Whatever label correctly applies, every one of us inevitably grapples with negative racial attitudes and reflexes, including me.

But even if the president was careful in his language and tone, Mr. Obama knew that delivering any speech on the subject of the controversial death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin would anger millions of Americans. For that reason alone, it was courageous.

Was it worth it, though? I hope so, but I doubt it. And there's always the risk that, by inserting himself so publicly into the case, the president's speech will exacerbate racial antagonisms.

The Zimmerman-Martin case isn't the best episode for initiating a national conversation on race. The backgrounds of the mixed-race adult neighborhood watch volunteer and the unarmed teenager only invited character assassination of each of them by supporters of the other. It got ugly in a hurry. By contrast, the Harvard professor and white police officer in the racial incident that arose during Mr. Obama's first term were upstanding citizens who excelled in their respective fields.

The "beer summit" resolution to that episode allowed Americans to return to the deluded belief that, because our majority-white nation had elected a mixed-race president, racism was a relic of our past. But if racial animosities arise at times and places we least expect (the daytime, leafy streets of college neighborhoods), does anyone really believe that racial profiling and racist sentiments have disappeared elsewhere?

Like Mr. Zimmerman, the president comes from a mixed-race family. He rose to national power via a traditional white path: law school and the state legislature, not the black clergy. He is a good father and loyal husband. He has exceeded the "twice as good" standard to which African-Americans know they are held. Barack Obama cannot be easily dismissed with the usual racial tropes.

That is, so long as he keeps his mouth shut about race matters, which for most of his presidency he has. As the American Prospect's Paul Waldman smartly observes, the "racial bargain" between the president and Americans (whether they voted against or even for Mr. Obama) has always been premised upon the notion that the president's race would "be a source of hope and pride — for everybody — but not of displeasure, discontent, or worst of all, a grievance that would demand redress."

True redress would mean figuring out why, for example, white defendants in citizen-on-citizen murder cases are roughly 3.5 times more likely to be acquitted when the victim is black than when the victim is white, and 4.5 times more likely in stand-your-ground states — and then doing something about it. Redress would mean figuring out why whites and blacks use illegal drugs at roughly comparable rates, yet drug arrest rates are between 2.8 times and 5.5 times higher for blacks than whites — and, again, doing something about it.

The president didn't call for all that. And in his speech, Mr. Obama calmly and repeatedly dispelled the notion that African-Americans are somehow blind to problems within their communities.

Instead, all he asked from us is a bit of introspection before we return to our regularly scheduled programming. Sadly, I suspect few Americans will oblige him, because empathy is more difficult to achieve than sympathy (which requires shared identities and experiences).

The good news is that the rise in interracial marriages may lead to greater racial sympathy. The bad news is that racial residential de-segregation began to slow down about two decades ago, which may reduce the opportunities to forge truly sympathetic, cross-racial understandings.

Whatever happens, and no matter how many souls are searched this week, the Zimmerman-Martin episode won't be the final chapter in America's contentious racial history.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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