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Obama Warms To Speaking Personally About Race

President Obama speaks about the George Zimmerman acquittal nearly a week after the ruling.
Carolyn Kaster
President Obama speaks about the George Zimmerman acquittal nearly a week after the ruling.

On race, Barack Obama often says he is not president of black America, but of the United States of America. Though he has not avoided the subject during his time in office, he tends not to seek out opportunities to discuss racial issues.

"He wanted to address them in a time and a way that accomplished specific objectives," says Joshua Dubois, who ran the White House's faith-based initiatives during Obama's first term.

Obama addressed race most comprehensively in a Philadelphia speech during his first presidential campaign, after incendiary sermons by the pastor Jeremiah Wright came to light. "Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," he said.

A handful of other events followed in the next four years, including a White House "beer summit" between a black Harvard professor and a white police officer; and the occasional commencement address at a historically black college.

Sherrilyn Ifill, who leads the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, believes Obama's posture is typical for African-Americans who lead racially diverse groups. "It's not as though many of us relish wading into issues of race," she says. "We often feel we must, or we feel compelled to, but very few of us are eager to do it, and certainly I think the president was not eager to do it."

A Rising Dialogue

On Monday, Ifill and other civil rights leaders met with the president to discuss the Voting Rights Act. It's one sign that Obama is engaging on racial issues more actively. He has addressed the subject roughly half a dozen times in the last month, in a wide range of settings.

During his recent travels through Africa, Obama talked repeatedly and explicitly about the significance of his skin color. "As an African-American president, to be able to visit this site I think gives me even greater motivation in terms of defense of human rights around the world," he said at a slave port in Senegal.

On June 25, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. Later, Obama reflected, "I might not be here as president had it not been for those who courageously helped to pass the Voting Rights Act."

And nearly a week after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, Obama spoke at length in the White House briefing room about the way black people experience America.

"There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store," he said. "That includes me."

This is not new territory for the president. But lately the remarks seem more personal, more candid and more common.

For example, in economic speeches, Obama often talks about "ladders of opportunity" or "leveling the playing field." People of color may read those phrases as allusions to racial inequality. But in an interview with The New York Times last week, he left no ambiguity. Without economic opportunity, "racial tensions won't get better; they may get worse," Obama said, "because people will feel as if they've got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pie."

There are both personal and circumstantial reasons for this change.

For starters, just look at the calendar. "It is the 50th anniversary of seismic, arguably vesuvial events in American history ... 1963 was an exceptionally difficult year," says Robert Raben, a Democratic strategist who works closely with the White House and civil rights groups.

It was the summer of the March on Washington, and the summer when a young black woman — Vivian Malone — helped integrate the University of Alabama. Today, her brother-in-law, Eric Holder, is attorney general of the United States.

A Changing Mentality

It must also be said that Obama is done with campaigning for office, which can be liberating. "I think he does feel greater latitude and a greater ability to speak at length, speak with clarity, and speak with personal conviction about these issues in his second term," Ifill says.

Some of those who know the president well dismiss the psychological explanations. As one person close to the president put it, "He's saying more on the subject because the questions are more direct."

Another White House ally, who did not want to criticize the president on the record, rejected the notion that anything has changed at all. "He's just as careful and highly managed as ever," this person said. "He has always looked to Attorney General Holder for heavy lifting on black issues."

Yet others who are close to the president see Obama consciously shifting strategy for specific reasons. "I think the president senses that we can actually do something now, and so he's putting his shoulder to the wheel," says Dubois. He describes this as, "one of those rare moments in American history when a time of moral outrage actually coincides with a moment where we can actually get things done."

Whether that involves changing the national dialogue on race, working to repeal "stand your ground" laws, or advancing programs to support black men and boys, Dubois argues that Obama is talking about race more often now for the same reason he talked about race infrequently before. This president is, as Dubois describes it, "the type of person who doesn't like to talk for just the sake of talking."

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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