The new Obama on race

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION SUNDAY - Twit­ter: @Mil­bank

When Pres­i­dent Obama ar­rived in Ok­la­homa City on Wed­nes­day night, a vul­gar sight awaited him: about 10 de­mon­stra­tors across the street from Obama’s down­town ho­tel wav­ing Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flags as the pres­i­den­tial mo­tor­cade pulled up.

Such a greet­ing of the na­tion’s first black pres­i­dent would have been ap­palling un­der any cir­cum­stance. It was all the more re­pug­nant be­cause of what it fol­lowed — the flag’s im­por­tance to the ac­cused killer in last month’s South Carolina church mas­sacre — and by what it pre­ceded: Obama’s visit to a prison Thurs­day to show­case the prob­lem with sen­tenc­ing poli­cies that have filled the na­tion’s pris­ons with non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers who are dis­pro­por­tion­ately African Amer­i­can.

“[P]eo­ple of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, ques­tioned, charged, de­tained,” he told the NAACP last week. “African Amer­i­cans are more likely to be ar­rested. They are more likely to be sen­tenced to more time for the same crime.” With one in 35 black men be­hind bars (ver­sus one in 214 white men), “around one in nine African Amer­i­can kids has a par­ent in prison.”

Ok­la­homa was just the latest re­minder of how lit­tle progress has been made in what was naively greeted with Obama’s elec­tion nearly seven years ago as “pos­tra­cial Amer­ica.” In May, Obama joined Twit­ter— and was met by a flood of racist tweets. In June, a gun­man killed nine peo­ple at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church. The sus­pect had al­legedly posed with the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag and posted a racist man­i­festo online.

This month, just as South Carolina was fi­nally tak­ing down the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag, Repub­li­cans in Congress pro­posed pro­tect­ing the flag on fed­eral lands, and protesters greeted Obama with the flag in Ten­nessee as well as in Ok­la­homa. Mean­time, Don­ald Trump’s pop­u­lar­ity among Repub­li­cans has surged since he be­gan his cam­paign of racially charged rhetoric on immigration.

Fol­low­ing an end­less stream of po­lice vi­o­lence against un­armed black men, it’s enough to drive one to de­spair. The gloom comes through in a deeply pes­simistic new book, “Be­tween the World and Me,” in which the At­lantic’s TaNe­hisi Coates holds out lit­tle hope for white Amer­i­cans, who de­ceive them­selves by liv­ing an idyl­lic “dream” of pros­per­ity made pos­si­ble by struc­tural racism. “The plun­der of black life was drilled into this coun­try in its in­fancy and re­in­forced across its history, so that plun­der has be­come ... a de­fault set­ting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must in­vari­ably re­turn,” he writes.

Of white Amer­i­cans, he ad­vises: “[D]o not pin your strug­gle on their con­ver­sion. The Dream­ers will have to learn to strug­gle them­selves, to un­der­stand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted them­selves white, is the deathbed of us all.”

But the re­cent ug­li­ness has also co­in­cided with a change in Obama’s public ap­proach to race. Obama had been shy about race for much of his pres­i­dency, and when he did speak, as The Post’s Janell Ross noted last week, he would of­ten “lec­ture black Amer­ica about its be­hav­ior.” Now, she wrote, Obama may sound “some­thing like the black pres­i­dent some white Amer­i­cans across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum feared (or hoped for).”

I’m one of those white Amer­i­cans who had hoped for it. It’s not Obama’s job to end racism, and he is prob­a­bly in a nowin po­si­tion on race (as il­lus­trated by his “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” Martin re­mark) but I’m buoyed to have the pres­i­dent speak­ing as loudly as the haters.

In a June 22 pod­cast with co­me­dian Marc Maron, he said end­ing racism is “not just a mat­ter of it not be­ing po­lite to say ‘nig­ger’ in public.” On Tues­day be­fore the NAACP, he spoke of the “legacy of hun­dreds of years of slav­ery and seg­re­ga­tion, and struc­tural in­equal­i­ties that com­pounded over gen­er­a­tions.” In be­tween, on June 26, came his eu­logy in South Carolina — per­haps the best rhetoric of his pres­i­dency, but also a call for ac­tion over words. “Ev­ery time some­thing like this hap­pens, some­body says we have to have a con­ver­sa­tion about race,” he said. “We don’t need more talk.”

What we need, for one thing, is the sen­tenc­ing re­forms he spoke about last week. As more non­vi­o­lent drug of­fend­ers (of­ten black) have been put away, the United States now has 5 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion but 25 per­cent of its pris­on­ers. The is­sue has Repub­li­can sup­port, which raises the pos­si­bil­ity of rare lateterm leg­isla­tive achieve­ment.

No­body thinks such a law will erase racism. But, as Obama said last week, “If we keep tak­ing steps to­ward a more per­fect union, and close the gaps be­tween who we are and who we want to be, Amer­ica will move for­ward.”

It’s the per­fect re­sponse to the Con­fed­er­ate flag wa­vers.

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