In his powerful and deeply personal reaction to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial, President Obama sought to reclaim the narrative about race. Yet, less than two weeks after his remarks, issues of racial injustice seem once again to be fading in the rear view mirror. If the president is serious about helping us as a nation to bridge racial divisions, he needs to provide stronger leadership in raising public awareness about the persistence of racial inequities.
I don't quarrel with his assessment that national conversations about race are better suited "in families and churches and workplaces..." In such venues, as the president suggests, these conversations are likely to be "a little bit more honest" than "when politicians try to organize conversations."
However, as the former Deputy Director for Outreach and Program Development for President Clinton's Initiative, I believe it is a mistake to dismiss the value of presidential leadership in talking about racial issues. The legitimate frustrations that accompanied the Clinton Initiative should not obscure its accomplishments or the importance of President Obama's suggestion "that as president, I've got some convening power..."
For example, President Clinton convened religious leaders of all stripes to discuss how they could help to narrow racial divisions. The result was far greater awareness among clergy of the need to address such issues from the pulpit. The president convened corporate leaders to discuss the value of greater diversity in the workplace and ways in which they could achieve such diversity. The result was an increased emphasis by corporate leaders on the hiring and promotion of people from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. He launched a campus dialogue on race that involved more than 600 college campuses, and many of these campuses have continued such dialogues. The Initiative identified and shined a spotlight on more than 350 community-based activities that work to narrow racial divisions and disparities. People involved in such activities were inspired and energized by the attention they received from the White House.
There were more specific, concrete achievements, as well. The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, which has become a national leader in racial healing efforts, is a prime example. Its creation was a direct result of a meeting in which members of President Clinton's Advisory Board on Race, including the eminent historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, who chaired the Board, and former Mississippi Governor William Winter, participated. For several years after the Initiative ended, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies hosted an online network of many of the 350 community-based racial justice/racial equity organizations identified by the Initiative. This network enabled theses organizations to share ideas, to learn from each other's experiences, and to support each other when difficult circumstances arose. A similar network is now being created as a result of the America Healing initiative of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and many of the same organizations are involved.
It is unarguable that there were many frustrations during the Clinton Initiative, largely as a result of political constraints. But there is no substitute for presidential leadership in inspiring people to take up these conversations in non-political settings. There are many Americans, both black and white, who seek ways to create a more equitable and just society. The broad support for immigration reform hints at our desire for "a more perfect union." Despite the constant carping from the right wing, which clearly will not cease during the Obama administration, the president's oratorical gifts, his "convening power," and his unique perspective can inspire productive communication and interactions among people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as concrete actions to address racial inequities.
When he withdrew from the 1988 Democratic presidential primary campaign, the late Senator Paul Simon observed:
"Americans instinctively know that we are one nation, one family, and when anyone in that family hurts, all of us eventually hurt. There really is a yearning across this good land for leadership that appeals to the noble in us rather than to the greed in us."
I believe that 25 years later Senator Simon's observation still rings true for the vast majority of Americans. By providing strong leadership in reclaiming the narrative on race the president will speak to this yearning and will make a vitally important contribution to strengthening our increasingly diverse society.
Michael Wenger is a Senior Fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. His recently published memoir is entitled My Black Family, My White Privilege: A White Man's Journey Through the Nation's Racial Minefield.