President Obama's recent remarks on Trayvon Martin's death and George Zimmerman's acquittal opened the door to a new, more fulsome national dialogue on racism, the law, and American society. While his words were poignant and necessary, they will ring hollow if he does little else going forward to give voice to the millions of Americans of all colors who want to change our culture for the better. I hope he grasps this opportunity because he may never get another like it. And the national dialogue would be worse as a result.
He is uniquely positioned to lead. When a president speaks on an issue it immediately becomes legitimized and can snowball into greater attention and action. Conversely, a president's silence makes it difficult, if not impossible, to generate traction. That is why some of President Obama's African American liberal critics have been so vocal over the years. They see enormous potential withering on the vine of timidity and politics while people continue to suffer. His office represents the most important tool in the country to change the conversation on race. If he said to the country "We can do better" and consistently lays out the case for the nation to honestly come to grips with its racial truths, then positive change can follow. Without his voice and bully pulpit, the likelihood for positive change dims considerably.
Some of the president's most ardent defenders, particularly among African Americans, contend that context matters and that there is only so much he can do. I agree, but only to a point. I do not give him the pass that so many others are too quick to offer. I get that his conservative opposition is so virulent that they will fight him no matter what he says or does. Much of the conservative reaction to his remarks display a continued sad resistance to facts and the realities many Americans live with on a daily basis. Too many American conservatives refuse to acknowledge that not all Americans exist in the same relative equality of opportunity. So the president is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Given this intractable, militant opposition, he might as well spend some political capital to tell some uncomfortable truths. I just want him to do all that he can whatever the context; I think it is fair to conclude that he has not.
There are reasons to be doubtful that much positive will happen. His much heralded "race speech" in the run-up to the 2008 Pennsylvania Democratic primary turned out to be a missed opportunity; nothing of substance came of it. The reception to his speech and his election gave him the standing to lead. He did not. The White House Office on Urban Affairs was created in part to coordinate policy to help American cities, where a disproportionate number of African Americans live. If its website is representative of its work, and I am happy to be corrected if it is not, then there appears to be little policy activity and only one staffer.
Too often, America's conversations about race occur when the air is filled with the dust of a controversy. Hopefully the dust will settle soon and President Obama, uniquely positioned to lead the country on this issue, will walk through the door he opened and do what is necessary to make positive change.
Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of political science at Howard University and author of Republicans and the Black Vote. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com and can be followed on Twitter (@MKFauntroy) and Facebook (Michael K. Fauntroy). Please visit MichaelFauntroy.com to view his written, television, and radio analysis.