Top Officials Expand The Dialogue on Race
- What "dialogue"? There is no dialogue and will not be...except between
racists like Holder and everyone who voted for Obama because he's black (and
that is the ONLY reason anyone did vote for Obama...certainly not based on
his policies because he never had any). And who wants to dialogue with
Top Officials Expand The Dialogue on Race
Month's Celebrations Evoke a Mix of Views
By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009; A01
When the country's racial chasms seemed to threaten President Obama's
election, his team had to tread carefully. A month into his administration,
the tone has changed. Top officials are engaging the subject of race more
freely, with a boldness and confidence they once shunned.
With the federal government's annual African American History Month
celebrations as a backdrop, the attorney general, the first lady and the
head of the Environmental Protection Agency spoke more frankly about race
recently than any of Obama's surrogates did during the hard-fought campaign.
Lisa P. Jackson, the EPA administrator and a native of New Orleans, told her
staff about having grown up in an area where she would have had to drink
from unsafe water fountains because of her race. "Now in 2009, I am, along
with you, responsible for ensuring that all Americans have clean water to
drink," Jackson said. "Change has certainly come to this agency."
First lady Michelle Obama hosted middle-schoolers in the White House East
Room and taught the children about African Americans and their roles in the
executive mansion: the slaves who built it, the signing of the Emancipation
Proclamation there, the meetings held with civil rights leaders.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who ignited the most debate, used his
Feb. 18 address as an admonition that "to get to the heart of this country,
one must examine its racial soul."
"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,
in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways,
essentially a nation of cowards," Holder said. "Though race-related issues
continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and
though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we,
average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race."
The plain talk may be an attempt to expand the racial dialogue Obama called
for during his speech on the subject in Philadelphia last year, but whether
Americans want to go there remains unanswered. White House officials said
the African American History Month celebrations were choreographed across
the federal government. Reaction so far has been mixed.
Holder has been rebuked by some who contend that with Obama's election, the
country proved its willingness to move beyond the color line. New York Times
columnist Maureen Dowd likened Holder's remarks at the Justice Department's
African American History Month program to a lecture on race by Jesse Jackson
or Al Sharpton. "Barack Obama's election was supposed to get us past that,"
Jen Singer, author of "You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad
Either)," wrote on the Web site BettyConfidential.com that "Michelle Obama
could talk all she wanted about Black History Month, slavery and
segregation, but no words could better illustrate to today's schoolchildren
how far this country has come than her presence as First Lady."
There is a risk in talking about it too much, said Thomas Mann, a political
scientist at the Brookings Institution, in an e-mail. During his campaign,
Obama made an explicit decision not to emphasize race and did so only when
it threatened to damage his candidacy. Changing course now could make some
Nearly six in 10 Americans said Obama's presidency will do more to help race
relations in this country, according to a January Washington Post-ABC News
poll. But whites and African Americans start out with widely divergent views
on the racial climate in the country. Overall, about three-quarters of those
surveyed called racism a problem in society today, with one-quarter labeling
it a "big" problem. Twice as many blacks (44 percent) as whites (22 percent)
called it a big problem.
"They definitely have to be careful," Mann said of the Obama administration.
"Better to have the president and his top African American aides serve as
role models and achieve the broader objective by indirection."
Others argue that African American administration officials are simply
bringing their background, perspective and history to the public sphere.
Holder, Jackson and Obama are the first African Americans in their
positions, and it should come as no surprise that their celebration of black
history is different from their predecessors', said Shawnta Walcott, a
pollster at Ariel & Ethan.
"I think what we know about the first lady is that part of her persona is to
go one level down into something that she thinks is significant," Walcott
said. "She is the first African American first lady, so we should expect to
see those sorts of nuanced pieces of information coming from her. It is
unusual for the norm, but she is not the norm."
There are attempts now to define the new normal. Last weekend, after
Holder's use of the phrase "nation of cowards" drew criticism, it became a
subject of discussion at a Princeton University symposium titled "From the
Middle Passage to the Oval Office: Defining the Black Experience."
One of the panelists, Jeff Johnson, host and producer of Black Entertainment
Television's "The Truth," said the reaction to the attorney general's
comments read as if "he was saying only white Americans were cowards."
Holder "was talking about all of us, from white Americans to African
Americans to Asians to Latinos," said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of
religion and African American studies at Princeton. "The fact that we would
read Holder's comments as only about white Americans shows us how we are
thinking about race when it is invoked."
Glaude noted that reaction to Holder's comments coincided with publication
of a controversial editorial cartoon in the New York Post. NAACP officials
decried the cartoon as a racist depiction of the president as a slain
chimpanzee. The NAACP called for the cartoonist and his editor to be fired
and held protests Thursday at Fox News affiliates in 50 cities. The Fox News
affiliates and the New York Post have the same owner, News Corp.
Other people have shushed protesters as overly sensitive.
"It is just the traditional theater of American racial politics," Glaude
Rinku Sen, president of the Applied Research Center, a think tank on race in
Oakland, Calif., Chicago and New York, said she also worries that the
dialogue about race is being pushed back into the old paradigm that kept the
nation in a stalemate.
"I think that the line is, 'We've elected the black president, and now we're
post-racial and everybody should just shut up.' It's very dismissive," Sen
said. "We did elect the first black president, but people seem to forget
that it was a hard campaign."
To Jelani Cobb, a professor of African American history at Spelman College,
the back-and-forth about race in the age of Obama already feels old.
"Our major concerns about race are not conversations," Cobb said. "They are
about policies, and they are about entrenched legacies of privilege and
underprivilege. So in some ways, these conversations are a substitute for
other kinds of more meaningful reform or interaction."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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