Barack Obama's Journey to Charleston
Barack Obama hadn't dug so deep, found so much, and been so moving on the tender subject of race since his historic speech to explain his relationship to his controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, during his first presidential campaign in 2007. On Friday, the president reminded us both how much and how little American society has evolved in the intervening years.
Obama came to Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to eulogize his friend, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was gunned down along with eight others ranging in age from 7 to 87 as he led Bible study one night last week. The killer was a punk kid who sat for an hour beside the people he would kill for worshiping while black. He was a white supremacist who inhaled hate propaganda and blamed blacks for everything that was wrong in his life.
Dylann Roof, the alleged killer, the president said, thought he would "incite fear and recrimination." He "could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court, in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness." Nor could Roof "imagine how Charleston, the state and the country would react with revulsion but also with generosity and a thoughtful introspection we so rarely see in public life."
For most of his time in office, Obama has been careful not to speak too eloquently, show too much empathy, or worse, anger, lest he be perceived as tilting toward one group over another instead of being the president of the United States. Bill Clinton could afford to be the first black president. The first black president could afford no such thing.
But the massacre in Charleston has freed Obama. He spoke of grace, and didn't gloss over the political truth.
"For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in many of our citizens," he said. "But that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation."
The symbol's removal from the South Carolina Capitol "would be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong."
Much hasn't changed in the eight years since he spoke in Philadelphia's Constitution Center about Wright, who was everything Obama wasn't: angry, outspoken, and frightening to the people the one-term senator needed to win the White House. He couldn't embrace his former pastor nor could he throw him under the bus. He did neither.
Wright, Obama said then, embodied "the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together."
That speech allowed candidate Obama to change the subject and go on to win the presidency. That achieved, however, he sometimes seemed to ignore his own advice and did "simply retreat."
A study by Daniel Gillion of the University of Pennsylvania found that Obama talked less about race in his first two years of office than any Democratic president since John F. Kennedy. Like many Americans, perhaps Obama wanted to think that with his election, we had indeed overcome. The worst was over. Liberals could move on to other issues -- gay marriage, amnesty for the children of undocumented immigrants, properly labeled bathrooms for Caitlyn Jenner.
Even as reality kept interfering -- in the form of the repeated killings of unarmed blacks by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, and the shooting of a 12-year-old with a toy gun in Cleveland -- Obama spoke with a modulation that didn't fit the enormity of what was happening.
But not on Friday.
"Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty or attend dilapidated schools or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career," he said. "Perhaps it causes us to examine what we are doing to cause some of our children to hate."
It's easy to understand why Obama so often pulled back in the past. When he said that if he had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin, the teenager slain by a Florida neighborhood watchman, he was criticized for playing the race card and dividing the country.
The bloodbath in Charleston gave him no choice. Even before investigators found white supremacist pornography on Roof's laptop, we knew that his words as he opened fire spoke to the hateful propaganda he inhaled. "You rape our women," he shouted, "and you're taking over our country."
George Wallace couldn't have said it more clearly. The former governor of Alabama, upset by desegregation and civil rights legislation, put up the Confederate flag to thumb his nose at a federal government trying to give former slaves rights that would recognize their humanity and restore their full and equal status as citizens. By the time of Obama's eulogy, the real purpose behind those flags was so apparent that even the most weak-kneed politicians were scurrying to remove them. What a difference a massacre makes.
Just as the first instinct of apologists for racism is to excuse the police for making an honest mistake, it took excerpts from Roof's manifesto to convince many that he wasn't just a mentally unstable loner -- or even, some suggested, a hater of Christians -- but was intent on starting "a race war."
That didn't stop the Wall Street Journal editorial page from arguing this week that institutional racism no longer exists. It took a full-bore investigation after the death of Michael Brown for the Justice Department to document that the Ferguson courts, prosecutors and police department were awash in institutional racism: blacks singled out for traffic stops, booked, arraigned, and given fines that grew exponentially.
And it turns out that rough rides from the police weren't a fluke in Baltimore. Freddie Gray would be alive if he hadn't been arrested when police mistakenly thought he was hiding a knife, threw him in the paddy wagon and drove around as he was hurled wall-to-metal-wall until his spinal cord snapped.
In the waning days of his presidency, Obama's reluctance to talk about these matters is waning, too. He's gained the wisdom to know that which he cannot do (fix Washington, for example, though House Speaker John Boehner did fly down to Charleston on Air Force One). But that has liberated the president to do other things, even if by executive order, making life a little bit better for those who've not reaped the promised rewards of his tenure: to protect black citizens from their putative protectors, to acknowledge and try to correct the racism that still is very much with us.
At the end of his eulogy, Obama broke into the first verse of "Amazing Grace," singing a capella until the congregation joined in. He called out the names of the slain, hugged the young daughters of Reverend Pinckney, and left the room to comfort all nine families.
"Out of this terrible tragedy, God visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind," he said. "If we can find that grace anything is possible. If we can tap that grace anything can change.”
The president has every reason to keep reminding us how far we've come, but Friday he showed us how far we still need to go.
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