Wrestling with how to talk about race

Sunday, September 27, 2009
FILE - In this July 30, 2009 file photo, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have a beer with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., second from left, and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley in the Rose Garden of The White House in Washington. For a while, it almost seemed as if President Barack Obama had salved the angst over race in this country simply by taking office. The focus was on big issues facing a new president _ one who just happened to be black. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, FILE)


WASHINGTON -- For a while, it almost seemed as if President Barack Obama had soothed the angst over race in this country simply by taking office. The focus was on big issues facing a new president -- one who just happened to be black.

If only it were so simple. This summer, Obama stepped into the skirmish between a black college professor and a white police officer, and the race debate erupted anew. Then attacks on Obama over his health care proposals led to allegations that his critics were motivated by racism.

And now passions over skin color are flaring again.

Obama's election nearly a year ago turned the politics of race on its head.

It turns out that Obama was right when he said in a campaign speech last year that there are "complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect."

One struggle is how to hold Obama accountable for his words and actions -- or even talk about his policies -- without risk of being called racist.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain wrestled with that question during the presidential campaign. Both found it tricky to maneuver. Both were frustrated by it.

In the Democratic primary, Clinton acted so cautiously that some insiders questioned whether she was afraid to throw a punch. In the general election, Republican McCain early on accused Obama of playing the race card, hoping to send a message that he would not tolerate being called a racist.

Obama had warned that Republicans would try to scare voters by saying he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."

A year later, President Obama is the one working to tamp down race in the political dialogue.

"Are there people out there who don't like me because of race? I'm sure there are," Obama says. But he rejects the notion that racism is even partly behind his critics' attacks, as a growing chorus of Democrats have claimed.

He adds: "We can have a strong disagreement, passionate disagreements about issues without resorting to name-calling."

In a nation founded by slaveholders, people aren't about to stop using it just because a black president is pleading for civility.

Certainly, Obama's election healed some wounds. But change takes time. Understanding the ramifications of change takes even longer.

"What we're dealing with is the foundational racial problems that we have had and still have. We're making progress, but we haven't come as far as people would like to believe we have," says Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., the senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., and an outspoken conservative who is black. He says society is going through "a learning curve" on how to criticize Obama -- and how to criticize the president's critics.

Could the risk of being called a racist end up muzzling debate if people don't dare voice their concerns?

Perhaps for some. But on the whole, criticism hasn't stopped.

Animosity toward the president and his policies has boiled over in recent weeks, most notably with South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" retort to the president.

Democrats from Jimmy Carter on down have blamed the increasingly harsh criticism of Obama on racism.

House Republican leader John Boehner countered that "the outrage that we see in America has nothing to do with race."

Reality likely falls somewhere in the middle.

"I hear it as anger, but anger masking fear," says Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley whose books include "The Language War." She says people are afraid of just about everything these days -- the economy, the government, private business included. And she says: "There's this racial element. It isn't exactly racism but otherness."

Obama has tried to shift the subject. It's been a distraction from his agenda, from his efforts to overhaul the health care system.

"It's important to realize that I was actually black before the election," the president said this past week.

It was a gentle joke from the leader of a country still wrestling with the new dynamics that came when the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas took charge.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.

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