Obama helped us peer into racial di­vide

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son

— Pres­i­dent Obama gave a ma­jes­tic speech in Dal­las, one of the best of his pres­i­dency, at once a soar­ing trib­ute to slain po­lice of­fi­cers and an af­fir­ma­tion of peace­ful protest. But he was wrong about one thing: On race, sadly, we are as di­vided as we seem.

This con­di­tion is not due to any­thing Obama has said or done. He bends so far back­ward to avoid giv­ing of­fense, even to those who richly de­serve of­fend­ing, that he must need reg­u­lar ses­sions with a chi­ro­prac­tor. The racial di­vide, which has its roots in lin­ger­ing claims of white supremacy, has been there all along. It was mostly silent and un­ac­knowl­edged un­til the very fact of the Obama pres­i­dency cast it in stark and un­for­giv­ing light.

So I am not sur­prised at re­cent polls show­ing that Amer­i­cans be­lieve race re­la­tions are wors­en­ing. It is as if a dark cor­ner has been il­lu­mi­nated to re­veal the mess that was swept there long ago and will­fully ig­nored.

I have long be­lieved that the most rev­o­lu­tion­ary act the first AfricanAmer­i­can pres­i­dent could ever per­form is to go about his of­fi­cial du­ties for all the world to see. A black man stands to de­liver the State of the Union ad­dress. A black man toasts for­eign lead­ers at glit­ter­ing White House din­ners. A black fam­ily crosses the South Lawn to board the Marine One helicopter and be lifted into the sky.

These scenes are ir­refutable ev­i­dence of how much Amer­ica has changed, and to some they are threat­en­ing. Don­ald Trump’s campaign slo­gan — “Make Amer­ica Great Again” — can­not be read sim­ply as misty nos­tal­gia for an eco­nomic golden age. For the over­whelm­ingly white crowds who fill his rau­cous ral­lies, Trump prom­ises a re­turn to a time when the na­tion’s lead­er­ship and cul­tural norms re­flected what was then a clear eth­nic and racial ma­jor­ity.

Trump, you will re­call, has been one of the most prom­i­nent “birther” voices seek­ing to deny Obama’s le­git­i­macy as pres­i­dent. He en­cour­ages those who can­not abide the thought of a black pres­i­dent to pre­tend the whole thing never re­ally hap­pened.

Not all who sup­port Trump, of course, are racists; and not all whites who blame Obama for height­en­ing racial ten­sion are Repub­li­cans. There are many oth­ers who hon­estly and naively thought the elec­tion of an African-Amer­i­can pres­i­dent meant that race was no longer an is­sue. Now we


can just move on, they be­lieved — look­ing past the dis­par­i­ties between black and white that still ex­ist.

One glar­ing dis­par­ity is in how blacks and whites are treated by the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. The high- pro­file in­ci­dents that have hap­pened since Obama took of­fice are noth­ing new. Trayvon Martin was not the first young black man to be racially pro­filed, nor was Har­vard pro­fes­sor Henry Louis Gates Jr. the first older black man to have the ex­pe­ri­ence. Al­ton Ster­ling and Phi­lando Castile were ob­vi­ously not the first black men to be killed by po­lice of­fi­cers un­der highly ques­tion­able cir­cum­stances.

What is novel, though, is that the pres­i­dent of the United States is him­self African- Amer­i­can. So when Obama says that ar­rest­ing Gates on his own front porch was stupid, or that if he had a son the boy would look like Martin — sim­ple state­ments of fact, in my view — to some whites it sounds as if he is tak­ing sides. Rep. Steve King, R- Iowa, once just came out and said it: Obama, he claimed, “has a de­fault mech­a­nism ... that fa­vors the black per­son.”

Obama takes pains to avoid hav­ing whites see him this way — which frus­trates some African- Amer­i­cans who won­der how he can watch the video of Castile’s life bleed­ing away and not speak with the raw an­guish and anger that so many of us feel.

For black Amer­i­cans, too, the Obama pres­i­dency cre­ates per­haps un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions — not that racism could some­how mag­i­cally end but that it would be fully ac­knowl­edged and frontally ad­dressed. I think some com­men­ta­tors un­der­es­ti­mate the re­sis­tance that stronger words from the pres­i­dent would en­counter. To win the White House, I once wrote, Obama had to be seen as the least ag­grieved black man in Amer­ica. As he pre­pares to leave of­fice, this re­mains largely true.

When the next pres­i­dent is sworn in, Obama will leave of­fice with­out hav­ing healed the na­tion’s fes­ter­ing racial wounds. He will not have made them worse; rather, he will have al­lowed us to see how deep they re­main and how much heal­ing still needs to take place. It may take years to fully ap­pre­ci­ate how dra­mat­i­cally this pres­i­dency has bent the arc of his­tor y to­ward jus­tice.

Eu­gene Robin­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@ wash­post. com.

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