President Barack Obama’s press briefing last week had a deeper impact than his historic election in 2008. To those jaded by politics, there was little hope that Obama would be able to honor a fraction of his promises within the current system. But when he confronted Americans who would rather not acknowledge the reality of racism in America, he committed an unexpected and moving act of heroism; he spoke for the silenced.
Alas, Obama’s trademark duality added provocative nuances to his statement. His assertion that we should remember that race matters have improved since Jim Crow—despite the apparent racism that continues—offers a perspective that would not be welcome with respect to other historically abusive dynamics. For instance, Obama would likely agree that abusive domestic relationships are inexcusable. Consequently, men or women taking less of a beating from their partners than before is hardly a comforting report. So to look at racial discrimination through a lens of relativity may help ease tensions over a polarizing issue such as the George Zimmerman trial verdict, but it also encourages complacence in Americans when it comes to racial discrimination, complacence that the government would prefer.
And Obama’s claim that politicians are ill equipped to fully engage in dialogues about systemic racism is undeniable, but it also forgives the broken system Obama set out to change. Although Obama did not fully explain the inadequacies of political involvement in these discussions, speculation does not reflect well on the health of our country as demonstrated through the political infrastructure. One potential explanation is that the corporate influence in Washington precludes politicians from tackling issues that concern the everyday life of marginalized citizens. A more palatable rationale would be that politicians who engage in conversations about race risk alienating constituents who have little understanding of or interest in the issue, and would thereby jeopardize their careers as elected representatives. Either way, politicians’ absence from the dialogue indicates that the greater good they serve is but their own or, at best, that they fail to see how racial discrimination also impacts citizens who do not have to interact with minorities on a personal level.
But a major problem with removing politics from racial discourse comes from Obama’s thoughtful suggestion that laws like the one that led to the acquittal of George Zimmerman should be examined for the purpose of reform. Since politicians determine legislation, their involvement in the discussions that lead to changes in policy should be a requirement. Believing otherwise suggests that politicians are either too corrupt or unqualified to confront the humanity that these discussions demand. And in either case, questioning whether politicians were ever really servants of the people in the first place seems like a legitimate concern.
Was President Obama speaking for black people on the lower frequencies? In doing so, did he subliminally admonish the system while explaining on the surface the he is, in fact, a black man who can confirm that discrimination is alive and well? Ultimately, the media will decide, and the people will echo whichever perspective their favored media outlets project. And time will tell whether “Yes We Can” comes true in this discourse.