“An iced tea and some Skittles”

It’s an issue that won’t go away. Barack Obama, the United States’ first black president, has refused to unequivocally acknowledge the racism that has afflicted his presidency since before he was even elected.

It’s possible to argue that naming racism would not help, that it would only further antagonize those who deny their own racism. But in his remarks about the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch captain in Sanford, Florida, saying of the young man, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,”[1] Obama may finally have come to a recognition that pretending that we live in what some have called a “post-racial” society has also not worked.

This president has established a record of saying something well, that needed to be said, only to effectively recant a short time later. He delivered what was widely regarded as a brilliant speech in his campaign, when remarks by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, seemed unpatriotic, both acknowledging the history of race relations in this country and making a case for a “post-racial” view, accusing Wright of “us[ing] incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation — that rightly offend white and black alike.”[2]

I was not offended by Wright’s opinions, and I thought it courageous when Obama first declared,

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.[3]

I was offended instead when Obama recanted,[4] denouncing Wright for saying what this country desperately needs to hear, among other things, that the 9/11 attacks were the inevitable consequence of an unbalanced and interventionist U.S. foreign policy. I am offended now, because when I read the transcript of Reverend Wright’s remarks at the National Press Club that caused such a fuss, I see a man who clearly seeks reconciliation, but who recognizes that sincerity is a necessary precondition to reconciliation.[5]

It happened again, when Obama first said, entirely sensibly, of the Henry Louis Gates, Jr., arrest, in which racial profiling was alleged,[6] that

number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.[7]

He backed down the next day, cowardly saying, “I could’ve calibrated those words differently.”[8]

Obama has, from the time he was assured of the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2008, established a record of appeasement. He appeases the Republicans. He appeases the bankers. He appeases the insurance companies. He appeases the warmongers. He appeases neoconservatives. He appeases Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He may, from time to time, say something powerful, say something true, but in the end, it is the poor who pay just as they always have.

But a funny thing happened last month. In the face of protests from conservative Christian churches that they would be forced by a new regulation to pay for insurance coverage for contraception, the Obama administration only slightly modified its stance: The insurance companies, rather than the churches, would be required to provide the coverage.[9] Of course, the churches are still paying the premiums, so they are, in effect, still paying for the coverage; the rule change might alter the rhetorical stance, but it changes nothing else. Obama uncharacteristically stood his ground.

It’s pretty solid ground. Conservatives have tipped their hand. The fight over abortion would not end even if Roe v. Wade were overturned; instead, we would see that conservatives are really seeking to deprive women of any control over their own fertility. As sick as the United States in the 21st Century can be argued to be, it isn’t that sick. Men and women both benefit from access to birth control, a large majority of us know it, and in a presidential election year, only politicians hoping to gain the support of right wing Christians pretend otherwise.

So it remains to be seen if Obama will stand his ground on the shooting of a young man in Florida who was “walk[ing] down the street with an iced tea and some Skittles.”[10] We can only hope.

  1. [1]Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Nomination of Dr. Jim Kim for World Bank President,” White House, March 23, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/03/23/remarks-president-nomination-dr-jim-kim-world-bank-president
  2. [2]Barack Obama, “Transcript of Obama’s speech,” March 23, 2008, http://articles.cnn.com/2008-03-18/politics/obama.transcript_1_perfect-union-constitution-slavery?_s=PM:POLITICS
  3. [3]Obama, “Transcript of Obama’s speech,” March 23, 2008.
  4. [4]Associated Press, “Obama strongly denounces former pastor,” MSNBC, April 29, 2008, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24371827/ns/politics-decision_08/t/obama-strongly-denounces-former-pastor/
  5. [5]Jeremiah Wright, “The Full Wright Transcript,” Atlantic, April 28, 2008, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2008/04/the-full-wright-transcript/52865/
  6. [6]Abby Goodnough, “Harvard Professor Jailed; Officer Is Accused of Bias,” New York Times, July 21, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/21/us/21gates.html
  7. [7]Katharine Q. Seelye, “Obama Wades Into a Volatile Racial Issue,” New York Times, July 23, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/23/us/23race.html
  8. [8]Associated Press, “Obama: Poor choice of words in scholar’s arrest,” MSNBC, July 24, 2009, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32122967/
  9. [9]Helene Cooper and Katharine Q. Seelye, “Obama Tries to Ease Ire on Contraception Rule,” New York Times, February 7, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/health/policy/obama-addresses-ire-on-health-insurance-contraception-rule.html
  10. [10]Eugene Robinson, “To Be Black in America,” Truthout, March 23, 2012, http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/8049-to-be-black-in-america

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