WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s observation that racism is “deeply rooted” in U.S. society is an understatement. Racism is as American as the Fourth of July, and ignoring this fact doesn’t make it go away.
These truths, to quote a familiar document, are self-evident. Obama made the remark in an interview with Black Entertainment Television, telling the network’s largely African-American audience something it already knew. The president’s prediction that racism “isn’t going to be solved overnight” also came as no surprise.
Right-wing media outlets feigned shock and outrage. But their hearts didn’t seem to be in it. Not after Ferguson and Staten Island. Not after the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. These recent atrocities prompted Obama’s comments.
“This is something that’s deeply rooted in our society, it’s deeply rooted in our history,” the president said, in excerpts of the interview that were released Sunday. “When you’re dealing with something as deeply rooted as racism or bias in any society, you’ve got to have vigilance but you have to recognize that it’s going to take some time, and you just have to be steady so you don’t give up when we don’t get all the way there.”
Patience and persistence are virtues. As Obama well knows, however, we’ve already been at this for nearly 400 years.
The election of the first black president in 2008 was an enormous milestone, something I never dreamed would happen in my lifetime. Obama’s re-election four years later was no less significant – a stinging rebuke to those who labored so hard to limit this aberration to one term.
But no one should have expected Obama to magically eliminate racial bias that has been baked into this society since the first Africans were brought to Jamestown in 1619. The stirring words of the Declaration of Independence – “all men are created equal” – were not meant to apply to people who look like me. The Constitution specified that each slave would count as three-fifths of a person. African-Americans were systematically robbed of their labor, not just before the Civil War but for a century afterward through Jim Crow laws and other racist arrangements. Blacks were deliberately denied opportunities to obtain education and accumulate wealth.
You knew all of this, of course. I recite it here because there are those who would prefer to forget.
A Bloomberg poll released Sunday found that 53 percent of those surveyed believe race relations have worsened “under the first black president,” while only 9 percent believe they have improved. A 2012 Associated Press poll found that 51 percent of Americans had “explicit anti-black attitudes” – up from 48 percent four years earlier, before Obama took office. All this makes me wonder whether, for many people, Obama’s presidency may be serving as an uncomfortable reminder of the nation’s shameful racial history.
Then again, it may be that having a black family in the White House just drives some people around the bend. Why else would a congressional aide viciously attack the president’s daughters, ages 16 and 13, by telling them via Facebook to “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar”? The scold apologized and resigned, perhaps without fully knowing why she felt compelled to go there in the first place. For some people, it doesn’t matter what the Obamas do or don’t do. Their very presence is inexcusable. There’s something alien about them; their teenaged girls can’t just be seen as teenaged girls.
We already know, from painful experience, how our society looks upon black teenaged boys.
After reminding the nation that racism exists, Obama went on to express optimism. “As painful as these incidents are, we can’t equate what is happening now to what was happening 50 years ago,” he said. “And if you talk to your parents, grandparents, uncles, they’ll tell you that things are better. Not good, in some cases, but better.”
Of course, that’s true. But it would be a betrayal of the brave men and women who fought and died during the civil rights movement to lose our sense of urgency when so much remains to be done.
U.S. neighborhoods and schools remain shockingly segregated. Jobs have abandoned many inner-city communities. The enormous wealth gap between whites and blacks has increased since the onset of the Great Recession. Black boys and men wear bull’s-eyes on their backs.
Whatever Obama says about race, or doesn’t say about race, somebody’s going to be angry. He should just speak from the heart – and tell the uncomfortable truth.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.