President Obama — or Reverend President — has captured America’s attention on racial inequality. He must make the issue his central theme for his remaining time in office.
At the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney — the state senator who was among the nine killed by Dylann Roof at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. — the president bore the weight of black folks on his shoulders when he articulated the history of slavery and the problem of racism we face in everyday life. His words were a call to action, as he seemed to realize that removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse — without addressing the systemic racism that remains once the flag is gone — risked becoming a squandered opportunity.
“By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace,” Obama said to resounding applause. “But I don’t think God wants us to stop there. For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career,” he added.
“Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate. Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system — and leads us to make sure that that system is not infected with bias,” the president said.
“Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote,” Obama added.
There are a number of reasons why President Obama should focus on racial inequality during his final year-and-a-half in the White House.
First, the issue is urgent and on the front burner. The president has addressed racism in various ways with varying degrees of success. As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama discussed the issue of racism within the context of “controversial” sermons made by his then-pastor and mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Some chose to dismiss Wright’s comments as “hate speech” without addressing the content of what the right reverend actually said. Ultimately, some in the media judged candidate Obama’s “race speech” based on how effectively he threw his pastor under the bus to gain white approval rather than the real pain of racism reflected in Wright’s words of indictment against America. Meanwhile, the presidential “beer summit” that arose out of the racial profiling of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates by police went from “teachable moment” to a bust.
Although hindsight is 20-20, it appears that in light of recent events and a lingering, festering wound of race — of which the Confederate flag controversy and the Charleston massacre are only two examples — Rev. Wright was vindicated. And now is not the time for more conversations; now is the time to act.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that while the Supreme Court was once a world leader in combating racial discrimination, things have changed, with the assault on voting rights. And yet, the court has been more accepting of LGBTQ rights by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and granting marriage equality. But Ginsburg laments that while public acceptance of gay Americans has increased, there is no similar understanding on the basis of race. Neighborhoods remain racially separated.
As black and gay American Darnell L. Moore expressed so eloquently in Mic.com, even with the historic significance of marriage equality, “once-alive black bodies will be placed in the dirt.” Moore added, “whether I am legally married or not, the rainbow flag of LGBTQ equality will never shield my black body from a reckless police officer’s bullet.”
Further, there is no guarantee that Hilary Clinton will handle the issue. Granted, the heir-apparent to the Obama coalition has spoken a great deal these days on the legacy of racial discrimination, most recently at a black church in Florissant, Missouri. Her comments on mass incarceration, police brutality, access to voting, education and other related matters are poignant and encouraging. However, no one really knows what Hillary or anyone would do as president, regardless of their campaign promises. After all, if she is elected, she will have her own agenda and priorities.
Finally, and most importantly, there certainly is no reason to believe the Republicans will tackle this issue. Although many of the party’s high-profile faces have condemned the Confederate flag, there is no evidence that anything else has changed in the GOP when it comes to race. While circumstances forced them to loosen their grip on the rebel flag, they win elections through racial scapegoating. The Republicans remain a safe haven for white supremacists and gun worshipers, which is not helpful in a nation overcome by virulent systemic racial discrimination and the highest levels of firearm deaths and gun ownership in the world. Hate crimes remain a problem, and black people are killed at a rate twelve times higher than other developed nations.
President Obama is unlikely to find any cooperation from the GOP on anything, especially where race is implicated. Until he leaves the White House, he should use his pen like there’s no tomorrow — because politically, there won’t be a tomorrow for him — drafting executive orders that tackle institutional racism.
The Emanuel Nine massacre and the Confederate flag brought clarity to the nation on racism. The U.S. suffers from a widening racial wealth divide, educational apartheid and the world’s largest prison population due to the exploitation of people of color. Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, there is a war on voting rights for black and brown people. And as Amnesty International noted, the nation fails international standards for the use of deadly force. The president still has the bully pulpit and can motivate the base to force change. The Obama who leaves office would remain the Obama people elected.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove