Obama's Return to the Race Issue

Aides say Obama intends to focus on reconciliation for the rest of his presidency.

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President Obama is focusing fresh attention on some of America's most grievous sins—slavery, segregation, and racial prejudice—as he tries once again to move the nation into a new era that celebrates common values and shared virtues.

In an often passionate address, Obama told the 100th anniversary conference of the NAACP in New York last week that his election as the first African-American president showed how far the nation has come, but he added that any remaining bigotry must be eradicated from society once and for all. "I believe that overall, there probably has never been less discrimination in America than there is today. I think we can say that," the president declared. "But make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America," notably by African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and gays. He went on to call for a variety of social programs to remove social inequalities, such as expanded tax credits, an overhauled healthcare system, and strengthened education.

Obama argued that America's racial problems reflect the fundamental flaws of prejudice and hatred in human nature—a theme he had emphasized during his trip to Russia, Italy, and Ghana earlier this month. On July 12, after touring the dungeons at Cape Coast Castle in Accra, Ghana, where captured Africans were shipped off to slavery in the Americas, he said the experience reminded him of his tour of a Nazi death camp a few weeks earlier. "It is reminiscent of the trip to Buchenwald because it reminds us of the capacity of human beings to commit great evil."

Obama seems to want, above all, to avoid portraying the race issue solely in terms of an aggrieved black minority seeing itself as the perpetual victim of the white establishment in the United States. Instead, he aims to find a broader human context for America's racial past—and future.

This is no doubt heartfelt on Obama's part. But it is also good politics because most voters at home are white, and they are alert to the possibility that Obama might play favorites with blacks, which would devastate his overall popularity. At least for now, race seems to have been neutralized as an issue for most white voters. "It's not particularly relevant to their lives," says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who adds that race doesn't come up in his focus groups. Most white voters consider Obama's White House "race neutral," Greenberg says.

Another common theme for Obama over the years that he repeated in his NAACP speech was self-help, as he called on African-Americans to "take responsibility" for their own future. "Government programs alone won't get our children to the promised land," he said in a preacherlike cadence. "We need a new mind-set, a new set of attitudes because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way that we have internalized a sense of limitation: how so many in our community have come to expect so little from the world and from themselves."

It's a message Obama has preached many times before, notably in the memorable speech on race that he gave in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, amid rising criticism of his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his controversial pastor in Chicago at the time. And aides say that he intends to keep preaching this gospel of reconciliation and personal responsibility for the rest of his presidency.