It's Time for Obama To End "Don't Ask, Don't Talk" Policy on Racism

04/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has moved to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the military policy initiated by the Clinton Administration that sidesteps the issue of gays serving in the military by pretending that they simply are not there. Without a doubt, Obama is doing the right thing because the policy is patently absurd. The staged silence created by "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" solves nothing. It certainly does not end discrimination against gays in the military. If anything, it exacerbates the problems that gays in and out of the service face.

Having seen the light about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Obama needs to move swiftly to end "Don't Ask, Don't Talk," the White House policy that sidesteps the issue of racism in America by directing the president not to talk about it.

"Don't Ask, Don't Talk" took shape during the presidential campaign. Throughout Obama's historic run for the White House, he tried his hardest to avoid talking about racism in today's society. To be sure, he talked about his own racial lineage, repeating ad nauseum that he was the son of a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya.

But discussing one's racial heritage is not the same as commenting on the persistence of racism in America. And on those rare occasions when Obama felt compelled to discuss racism, such as during the Rev. Jeremiah Wright sound bite controversy, he reduced racism in the 21st century to personal prejudice - to black anger over past discrimination and white resentment over Affirmative Action. Contemporary structural and institutional manifestations of racism received short shrift.

As president, Obama has continued "Don't Ask, Don't Talk." If no one asks him about racism, he simply does not talk about it. There have been occasions, of course, when he has been prodded to say something, most notably during the brouhaha surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., but even on those occasions, he has shied away from seriously interrogating the issue. After initially offering a strong indictment of racialized police misconduct, he shifted gears. An all too familiar incident of racial profiling became a simple misunderstanding that could be resolved over a couple of beers.

The problem with "Don't Ask, Don't Talk" is that the president's silence on racism in general, and on structural racism in particular, has led to public policies that fail to consider race. Federal stimulus measures are a clear and troubling example of this. Although African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the meltdown in the mortgage industry and the ongoing recession, recovery efforts emanating from the White House have ignored their particular plight. By failing to address race and racism explicitly, these economic policies, which are race neutral in language only, have prolonged and exacerbated the current financial crisis for far too many African Americans.

Ironically, "Don't Ask, Don't Talk" has received the tacit approval of many African Americans who insist that all will be lost if Obama talks publicly about racism. Their great fear, of course, is that talking about racism will scare the diversity out of white folk.

The truth of the matter, though, is that Obama's critics, particularly those on the far right (which is more near than far these days), will oppose his policies and fan the flames of white racial anxiety whether he talks about racism or not.

"Don't Ask, Don't Talk" solves nothing. It merely allows racism to persist unchallenged. It is imperative, therefore, that Obama end "Don't Ask, Don't Talk" and address directly in word and deed the many manifestations of racism today.

Crossposted from Race-Talk