On any given week it would have been the top story. But in a week dominated by the momentous nuclear agreement reached with Iran and another horrific mass shooting, President Obama’s visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma didn’t get quite the attention it warranted.
Marking a sharp break from politicians past, including Democratic presidents, Obama ditched the “tough on crime” rhetoric in favor of a “there but for the grace of God” tone. Here’s one of the key passages of his speech:
“When they describe their youth, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is that they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.
This speech, in which he noted how much more likely black and Hispanic men are to be incarcerated, was given days after his eulogy of Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims of the Emmanuel Church massacre on June 17.
The eulogy helped put the issue of racial violence and hate before the national public in a way no president has ever done. After a couple days of hedging, Gov. Nikki Haley led the entire South Carolina political establishment in declaring that it was time to end the war of symbolism over the Confederate flag and retire it to a museum.
In the next few days conservative Southern white Republicans agreed with Haley, something unthinkable only days before. Was this all due to the President’s eulogy? Not entirely. But it’s hard to ignore some profound and shocking statements he made in his address.
Out of the horror of the killer’s attack and his wish that it would spike racial hatred on both sides of the color line, the President saw something different. “God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas. [Dylann Roof] didn’t know he was being used by God.”
It’s something one might hear in the pulpit, but not from a president. Especially not an African American president who in his national introduction to the American people at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 eschewed the idea of red America and blue America and by implication, white America and Black America.
It’s often been said that a president’s lame duck time in office – those two years between the last midterm election and the exit from the oval office – is, well, lame.
But even the President’s most staunch critics could admit that Fourth Quarter Obama has racked up as many victories as he had in his vaunted first 100 days. And he’s using the political capital from those victories to do something quite astonishing. He’s not using it to woo his opponents or make political compromise. He’s speaking out about race and racial inequality, issues that, when he touched them when running for president and in his first term, he did so with delicacy intended to offend – or energize – nobody.
He has the bully pulpit, and he’s using it to talk about things that the first Black President shouldn’t talk about: race, racial hatred, and America’s need to lock away Black men.
In short, Fourth Quarter Obama is becoming, still, in his polite way, the Angry Black Man that his haters feared and many of his supporters hoped for.
Following up on his trip to the Oklahoma federal prison, Obama addressed the 106th national NAACP convention where he proposed a criminal justice reform plan including a reconsideration of who we send to jail and why.
But he didn’t stop there. He said that the justice agenda needed to resolve the huge disparities in school quality and discipline that begins as soon as kids set foot in their first classrooms. And he pointed out other racial disparities that determine who gets hired, who graduates from college, who gets a police force that protects them and who gets police that think of themselves as an occupying force.
Does anyone remember how Obama once chastised young Black men for looking gangsta by wearing saggy pants? That Obama hasn’t been seen in a while. He’s not lecturing Black men to behave better.
One may get the idea that Obama has been playing the long game, and now, freed of another election and the need to be polite, calm and “not too Black,” he’s able to aggressively push ideas to address racial inequality.
Or it might be that he’s riding the crest of a wave. In the last two years, the issue of racial disparity in law enforcement has broken open in the national consciousness, convincing even the most pro-police Americans to admit that something’s not quite right.
It’s also possible that it’s both. It’s possible that the confluence of events in Charleston, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York, Ferguson (the list goes on even as I write), plus the need to leave a strong legacy as the first African American president, has led to this new, fearless Obama, one who comes across not so much as testy but as someone who has a job to do and can’t be bothered apologizing for telling the truth. He is increasingly indifferent to the scorn of his political foes and focused on what he can do on his own or with reliable political supporters.
There’s one more thing that happened recently – Obama using the N Word in his podcast interview with comedian Marc Maron. It’s something that, of course, no White president could do, but it’s also something that was, just a few months ago, inconceivable for a Black President, this black president, to say. But he went there. And it looks like he’s going to keep going there. Some of us couldn’t be happier.
We have a long way to go, America. But Obama is taking us to worlds uncharted, at least by an American president. Hang on and enjoy the ride. My hunch is that we haven’t heard the last from President Barack Obama on racial matters.