Later today President Obama will give one of the most important speeches of his political career.
He will stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and deliver what is expected to be a rousing address to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Fast forward five decades and the unthinkable has happened: the election and then the re-election of the nation’s first black president.
Of course, Obama will summarize where the nation has been and where it is going on the issue of race. But will he use this platform to talk in personal terms and open up an honest conversation about racial injustice and inequality in America?
In Obama’s first term he steered clear of putting too much of an emphasis on race.
“It was a bit frustrating for those of us concerned about race,” says Duke University historian Timothy Tyson. “Ironically our first African-American president can’t talk about race because we are mired in fear, guilt, anger, and a deep uneasiness about our history.”
Though, Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, says the president has had his moments.
“I would say that as of now, Obama’s three seemingly most memorable plunges into racial matters remain his Trayvon Martin remarks, his Henry Louis Gates beer summit and, still at the top, his 2008 campaign speech about race,” he says.
Andra Gillespie, Emory University political scientist and author of Whose Black Politics: Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership, says the president is painfully aware of the tensions and contradictions of his historic election. “He needed to be elected and re-elected so he needed to be more reticent for political pursues.”
Still, there has been a change of tone since re-election. Analysts have observed a more confident, forceful and relaxed president, who at times seems unafraid to go off-script.
“President Obama has discussed race in a more honest and open manner during his second term,” says Peniel E. Joseph, a political commentator and black-studies scholar at Tufts University.
“In the first instance, circumstance surrounding the Zimmerman verdict compelled him to publicly admit the nation is not post racial. The second, during a larger discussion of economic injustice, reflected the president’s understanding of the connection between economic misery and racial tension.”
North Carolina NAACP President William Barber says Obama’s new-found confidence was adeptly highlighted in his second inaugural address, where he talked about civil rights, women’s rights and same-sex marriage.
“The inaugural speech sets the tone and trajectory of where the administration seeks to go and where it hopes America will go,” says Barber. “For him to put that on the nation’s roadmap is an incredible thing. I don’t think that’s ever been done before.”
Though, Barber believes far from the election of the first black American president reflecting a post-racial society, it has opened up a can of worms and brought to the surface America’s racial divide.
Obama has a “double-burden” and more complex tapestry than past U.S. presidents, he says. “The burden of being judged by your race and at the same time having to address issues relating to race.”
In fact, those to the left of Obama believe he has not had the courage to serve the poor or combat racial inequality. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, for instance, have both been pretty critical of the president on that issue, arguing he needs to do more.
Gillespie believes that oftentimes Obama has not taken the initiative but has been pushed to speak in response to events that have dominated headlines. She says when it came to Trayvon Martin the president had no choice but to comment on a case which caused such public outcry.
What has been different, though, is how he has chosen to respond in his second term, she says. “He has been more forthright in comments.”
So in unexpected remarks the president said in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman acquittal, “ Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
Dr. Tyson says it is important not only to put the spotlight on Obama but to take into account America’s history.
“There is so much at stake when we talk about race. To talk about it we must dive into the irrational and traumatic.”
“It’s not politics in a certain type of way. But it has political implications. Talking about race in a historically grounded way makes us uncomfortable.”
“Ultimately however, in a nation that has made miraculous progress yet still has a long way to go in healing its racial wounds and truly transcending racism, every day the simple fact that Barack Obama is president and Michelle is first lady constitute a powerful, eloquent, and inspiring statement about race,” says Dr. Troy.
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