President Obama’s race problem

Being America’s first African American president has not done enough for race relations. Photo: President Obama speaks at impromptu news briefing AP photo

WASHINGTON, July 23, 2013 — Last Friday President Obama appeared unannounced at the daily White House briefing and spoke passionately and without notes for 18 minutes about what it is like to be a black man in America.

The verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was the impetus for his heart felt talk, but it was apparent he was talking about something he has endured all of his life.

When Obama was first elected president in 2008, the African American community rejoiced, believing that he would focus on their problems and speak out forcibly. But he didn’t and they were confused and disappointed, although their support for the first black president stayed strong.

Words Needed as Much as Action

Obama obviously felt his historic win sent a strong message to the country and that since he was elected to be the president of all Americans and there was an economy in a shambles, that is where he would put all of his energies.  Plainly he believed his actions would speak louder than words.

However, it did not work out that way. Life never does, does it? And so whether President Obama wanted it or not, the son of white mother and an African father, was the embodiment of the race problem in this country. Just the fact that you are bi-racial automatically makes you black and not white tells us a lot about our attitudes.

The Right attacked him as a Muslim, a non-citizen, socialist, communist, an underminer of the Constitution: All ways of saying he didn’t deserve to be president because it was the Other.

He brushed off most of the criticism with the usual Obama cool detachment. He also rebuffed the Left’s insistence to stand up and fight back on that and key issues before Congress that he supported. Instead, he kept believing in the big picture, that in the end just being on the right side of history was all that was needed.

And then came the Zimmerman verdict, a sharp reminder of the great racial divide that still plagues this country. And no, race was not allowed to be discussed at the trial, despite Zimmerman’s remarks to the 911 operator, so it was never to be considered by the jury. Was it, since it was there all along, buried in the “stand your ground” defense, which the judge did allow in when she gave the instructions to the jury.

Now that President Obama has spoken openly about what it is to be young and black man in this country, he has started a conversation in America that is long overdue. Not on the verdict, but on race itself.

Conservatives Divided on Obama’s Remarks

What has been most interesting is to see him both attacked and lauded by conservatives. Sean Hannity on his radio show trivialized Obama’s serious remarks, asking, “Is Obama like Trayvon because he smoked pot, did a little blow?”   

While Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) blasted Obama, saying, “It is not surprising that the president uses, it seems, every opportunity that he can to go after our Second Amendment right to bear arms.”

And conservative columnist David Brooks said on “Meet the Press,” “I thought this speech was one of the highlights of the presidency.”

Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), no fan of Obama’s and once his rival for the presidency, not only praised Obama, but went as far as saying the “stand your ground” laws in this country need to be reviewed, including in his home state of Arizona.

And so the fireworks begin.

We can only hope that the President has ignited more than a light show in the sky, “all sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare once said.

Let’s hope a true national dialogue starts with white America listening to the concerns of black and minority America. Yes, this is not the America of fifty years ago when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched for justice and equality. We have come a long way since the Sixties. But not far enough.

Racial tensions still bubble just below the surface and every so often they boil over and we have a chance to confront our reality and maybe this time we will start doing something about it.

To contact Catherine Poe, see above. Her work appears in Ad Lib at the Communities @ She can also be heard on Democrats for America’s Future. She is also a contributor to broadcast, print and online media.


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Catherine Poe

Catherine was named one of the top Progressives in Maryland along with Senator Barbara Mikulski and Congresswoman Donna Edwards. She has been a guest of President Obama in the Rose Garden.

As past president of Long Island NOW, she worked to reform women's prisons in New York, open the construction trades to women, change laws to safeguard battered women, and protect the rights of rape victims. 

Long active in Democratic politics, she served as the presidentof the Talbot Democrats in Maryland for six years and fought to getthe Health Care Reform bill passed.

Catherine has been published in a diverse range of newspapers and magazines, including Newsday, Star Democrat, Rocky Mountain News, Yellowstone News, and the Massachusetts Review.

If Catherine has learned anything over the years it is that progressive change does not come easily, but in baby steps. 

Contact Catherine Poe


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