WASHINGTON — Eight American presidents owned slaves while living in the White House. President Zachary Taylor pledged that his fellow slave-owners would "appeal to the sword if necessary" to keep them. So when an American president arrived at the White House briefing room to speak of his personal experience with racial bias, it stirred some historical ghosts.
Typically, President Obama's 18-minute remarks did not aspire to memorable rhetoric. Rather than "I have a dream," it was "I have an explanation." But he explained something uncomfortable and important: How America contains within itself different experiences of the promise and justice of America.
Speaking as president, Obama responsibly affirmed the integrity of the legal process in the Trayvon Martin case. Speaking as an African-American, he identified with the experience of being singled out for scrutiny. He talked of being followed in department stores and of being preceded by clicking car locks. This description was more powerful for being clinical. He effectively conveyed a social reality many people seldom consider. One of the privileges of looking privileged is anonymity. One of the burdens of appearing less privileged is feeling watched — followed by "eyes that fix you," according to T.S. Eliot, "in a formulated phrase."
Some conservatives attacked Obama for being "divisive" and for injecting race into the Trayvon Martin debate. Those criticisms were misdirected.
It is perfectly appropriate for a president to apply his own history to his role as communicator and policymaker. Was it out of bounds for John F. Kennedy, who had a mentally disabled sister, to call for an overhaul of the nation's mental health system in 1963? Was it inappropriate for Lyndon Johnson, who grew up in Texas without electricity or indoor plumbing, to convene the National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty? Or is it only concerning the issue of race that a president should ignore his own background for fear of being "divisive"?
The opposite criticism is more serious — that Obama has missed opportunities over the years to talk about race in a compelling and personal way. It is the unavoidable American issue. At one point, a third of all human beings in the South were owned by another human being. For a century beyond slavery, Jim Crow laws enforced a racial caste system. The election of an African-American president — born three years before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — is a wonder of national healing and historical compression. Who can argue that we have heard too much from Obama on this topic? For five years, he strategically downplayed the reality of his own miracle.
Having finally engaged the issue of race, Obama drew the correct policy implication. Social divisions are deepest when it comes to African-American boys and young men: often betrayed by schools, abandoned by fathers, treated with suspicion, unable to find jobs, wandering through dysfunctional neighborhoods, locked in prison in vast numbers and denied basic civil rights (such as voting) for the rest of their lives. Obama has a unique standing to address the challenges of minority youth. As a young man, he was prone to trouble and might have easily gotten enmeshed in an unforgiving legal system. The president can effectively argue that first impressions are not always correct, and that second chances are sometimes necessary.
But Obama's speech deserves this criticism: Its policy proposals — training police, reconsidering "stand your ground" laws, more community dialogue and "soul-searching" — were weak. It was as though the administration's policy apparatus had never really considered the matter before — that it was somehow ambushed by America's most obvious policy challenge.
The problem of African-American boys and young men is a complex mix of lingering racial prejudice, urban economic dislocation, collapsing family structure, failing schools and sick, atomized communities. But is there really nothing practical that can be done? How about providing family supports — mentoring, fatherhood initiatives, teen pregnancy prevention, and removing the Earned Income Tax Credit penalty for married couples? How about strong accountability measures to close the educational achievement gap instead of granting waivers that lower standards? How about support for faith-based institutions that reclaim lives from gangs? How about prison reform, so that mandatory minimum sentences are at least reduced? How about expanding substance abuse prevention and treatment, which seem to have fallen off the national agenda?
Acknowledging a vast national division in a responsible way, as Obama has done, is not itself divisive. But healing that division will require the president to employ a presidential power he seldom uses: to drive and shape a policy debate.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.