Click photo to enlarge
President Barack Obama gestures to the audience before speaking in the East Room of the White House, July 17, 2013 in Washington D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

We should talk honestly about unresolved racial issues, such as those exposed by the Trayvon Martin case, but President Barack Obama is not the best person to lead the discussion. Through no fault of his own, he might be the worst.

The need for what diplomats call a "full and frank exchange of views" is obvious. Many Americans don't even agree that there are unresolved racial issues, much less that such issues played a role in George Zimmerman's acquittal.

I find it impossible to imagine the outcome would have been the same if the protagonists' roles were reversed -- if Zimmerman had been the victim and Martin the defendant. I know, that there are many who believe the hoodie-wearing African-American teenager would have been given the same benefit of the doubt his killer was given. I also know that one's beliefs about race and racism highly correlate with one's experience of race and racism.

What we're doing now is awkwardly talking about those beliefs and experiences -- shouting about them, actually. For better or for worse, this seems to be the way we conduct the "national conversation about race."

Here's how it works: Something happens that makes the subject of race all but unavoidable. We stake out positions. We get all worked up. We start to get frustrated. Gradually we lose focus and the dialogue, such as it was, peters out. No one feels we've made any headway. Often we have, though the progress may not be evident for some time.

Maybe it would be better if we all gathered at public libraries on some appointed day and worked our way through an agenda: "Legacy of Slavery," check. "Jim Crow Segregation," check. "Affirmative Action," check.


Advertisement

Sounds awfully boring to me, to tell the truth. And in any event, it's never going to happen. For people who want to talk about race, there are plenty of outlets, venues and forums -- more than ever, in fact, with the rise of social media. But those who prefer to avoid the subject are not likely to be enticed by earnestness.

Nor do they respond well, evidence suggests, to the observations and oratory of the first African-American president when he talks about race.

The record indicates that honest talk from Obama about race is seen by many people as threatening. A classic case came months into his first term, when a white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., had an unpleasant encounter with Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is black, and ended up arresting the scholar on his own front porch.

Obama said the officer had "acted stupidly." The remark seemed innocuous to me, a mere statement of fact. Instead, Obama provoked such outrage that he invited the two men to the White House for a "beer summit" to chill everyone out.

Similarly, Obama's factual statement that "if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon" drew shrieks of accusation that the president was unfairly taking sides in a criminal case. His statement following Saturday's verdict was anodyne and forgettable. Perhaps that's for the best.

At this point in his presidency, Obama could say whatever he wants. He must be sorely tempted. Unfortunately, if his aim is to promote dialogue about race, speaking his mind is demonstrably counterproductive.

Obama does more to change racial attitudes and challenge prejudices simply by performing his functions as president. A dozen speeches would not have the impact of one picture of the first family -- the proud, African-American first family -- walking across the White House lawn. No caption necessary.

Eugene Robinson is a syndicated columnist.