President Barack Obama's response to Attorney General Eric Holder's "nation of cowards" comment has given us more insight into his views on leading the country into an informed, reasonable, and necessary discussion on race in America. The new insight is worrisome. His timidity on this issue appears to go beyond just campaign strategy. It seems that Obama doesn't think race is a big deal. That is an incredible disappointment to some who understand the role race places in American political, social, and economic life and hoped he would use his new position to engage the nation on this continuing issue.
Holder's remarks last month before a gathering of Justice Department staffers hit all the appropriate points on race. He clearly acknowledged that the country is fundamentally better on race than it was decades ago. Only a fool would argue otherwise. The larger point, obscured by the response to "nation of cowards," is the real story of the speech: the nation's fear and discomfort about discussing race is holding us back from the real racial reconciliation that we desire. On both scores, Holder is entirely correct. And we need to talk about it.
The president told the New York Times that "I'm not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions." This statement is a disappointment. There is a great difference between constantly talking about race, on the one hand, and never talking about race, on the other. However, there is a great deal of space between those two poles and it's a false argument to suggest that talking about race gets in the way of solving racial tensions. Never before in recorded human history is it possible to find an example of a significant societal ill that was overcome because we ignored it.
I am among a number of observers who were heckled last year for suggesting that Obama was ducking race as an issue. His defenders suggested that he couldn't run the risk of scaring White voters and, consequently, jeopardizing his campaign by talking about race. They also pointed to his Philadelphia race speech as evidence that he "gets it" and everything will be all right after the election. That speech, perhaps better understood as rhetorical cotton candy designed more to keep White voters on the SS Obama than launch a serious discussion, failed to move the country toward the informed conversation that is desperately needed on this issue. Indeed, he has barely said a word on this since Philadelphia.
We need to move beyond this ridiculous notion that any discussion of race is tantamount to playing the race card or beating a dead horse. This is an insult to intelligent, well-meaning people who understand history and want America to be all that it can. It further reflects the conservative takeover of political discourse that has shielded the Right from engaging in an area in which they have little to offer beyond brickbats. Obama appears to clothe himself in the conservative approach to discussing race, which is to say as little as possible, and we will be worse off as a result. His unique position could move the country where it needs to be. Sadly, it appears very little will change.