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Dr. Lester K. Spence

On Morning Edition Discussion Obama and Trayvon

Was on NPR's Morning Edition on Friday, March 30, with David Greene talking about the constraints Obama faces when talking about race, specifically dealing with the Trayvon Martin case. I thought Obama's comments were spot-on, given that the case still hasn't been resolved. There are a couple of aspects of that conversation that should be emphasized. The first thing is that in this case it isn't necessarily about speaking to "race" but rather about speaking to a national tragedy that is the end result of racism. As symbolic leader of the country we expect the President to speak to national tragedies. This is no less of a tragedy than something like the Columbine Shooting was. 

Furthermore, it isn't so much about racial dialogue as it is about creating space for political action. In his Philadelphia speech, Obama emphasized the importance of private water-cooler conversations on race. Having discussions about race near the water fountain may very well increase "race relations" but this focus on "race relations" tends to lead to a type of "race management" that does not necessarily increase the ability of people who are not white to live and be free. 

Finally, I ended up focusing on my own experiences as a Hopkins professor in talking about Obama's racial constraints–about my experience having to consistently be aware of how I present myself at all times, knowing that I can never simply "blend in" on campus. This causes me to watch what I wear, to watch what I say, even in and especially when in anger. The focus on racial dialogue and race relations naturally leads to conversations about how race shapes our personal lives. Even though a lot of people have thanked me for talking about this tightrope we walk, I wish I could have found a way to talk about this that emphasized the political aspects of this dynamic better. One of the commenters on the NPR story noted that Adolph Reed would've provided more trenchant political criticism. He's right. 

For an example of what a more politicized conversation about race and national tragedy reads like, check out President Johnson's Howard University address.

Obama Walks Tightrope on Race.

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