President Barack Obama can’t talk about race. That is one of the great ironies as we prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and 50 years after President John F. Kennedy gave a bold and unprecedented televised address about race and discrimination in America.
The nation’s first black president may face the narrowest restrictions of any individual in public life in America when it comes to discussing race. If he criticizes a police officer for arresting an African-American college professor trying to enter his own home, many consider that out of bounds. If he identifies with the realities faced by millions of black men and women who feel profiled and stereotyped just walking down the street, he’s called divisive.
And if he dares to see in the pursuit and fatal shooting of a black teenager echoes of a boy that he could have been but for the grace of God, he invites a torrent of rage from his detractors, who demand that he and his fellow African-Americans pay for that insolence by answering, personally, for the death of every white American who is killed by someone who is black—rare though interracial killings are.
Yet, it would be a shame for this president not to keep trying to tackle the issue he is in so unique a position to address. So what should we expect this most cautious of presidents to say about this most intractable issue in his speech commemorating the March on Washington tomorrow? Perhaps he can take inspiration from the story of Carol Carter-Walker and Judith Claire, two 70-somethings who met by chance this past Saturday at the march re-enactment.
Fifty years ago, Carol, who is black, and Judith, who is white, attended the March on Washington separately. Judith Claire grew up on a farm in Michigan and served in the Peace Corps. Carol Carter-Walker grew up in segregated Washington, D.C., and had just started a job in New York. When they reconnected by chance last weekend, these two women—one white, one black; one rural, one urban—reminisced not about their differences, but about all the things they had in common.
Both were appalled by the violence against African-American protesters that had unfolded on their televisions and in their newspapers. They both remember the integrated, peaceful crowds at the march, and the sense that it was really possible for the nation to come together in that moment. And they both wanted to do something, however small, to realize King’s dream of a country not divided by race, but united by a few basic principles.
Those two women, who met by chance at the second March on Washington, will be there to hear the president’s speech tomorrow. He should tell them that we can do better, that we do have to be open and hopeful and try to learn from each other. And he should say that to do that, we can’t just sit here and watch TV.
We have to tell our experiences and hard truths, and hope that our fellow Americans will listen, but be willing to do so even if they won’t. That includes the President of the United States.