President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks about gun violence at the Annual Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco, June 19, 2015. 
Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP

Who gets to be a ‘neutral observer’ on race?

On “Meet the Press” yesterday, host Chuck Todd asked Gerald Seib, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, about the inherent challenges President Obama faces when discussing issues of race. “I’ve talked to people close to him,” Todd noted. “The president is self-aware that when he talks about race he thinks it polarizes the conversation and therefore he can’t – it defeats the purpose that he wants to have.”
It’s a perfectly fair point. The way in which the president approaches these issues is complex, and it’s not unreasonable to think the White House addresses these debates differently, in part because of expectations surrounding public reactions.
But something Seib said in response stood out for me:
“Yeah, and this is the great irony I think of the first African-American president. In some ways, he finds it harder to talk about race because he carries, you know, his own background into it obviously. He’s not seen necessarily as a neutral observer.”
This got me thinking: who gets to be a “neutral observer” on matters of race? And why can’t President Obama be one?
If the point is that the president, as an African-American man, is shaped by his experiences and background, all of which contribute to his personal feelings about race, I’ll gladly concede the point. But therein lies the rub: aren’t we all shaped by our experiences and background? Is it not true that every American, regardless of race or ethnicity, draws conclusions about these issues based on what we’ve seen, felt, and lived?
I’m sure Seib didn’t intended for his comment to be controversial, but his remark raises some obvious questions that deserve serious answers: are any of us neutral observers when it comes to race in America? Does our lack of neutrality matter or make our perspectives less valuable? Or more?
It reminds me a bit of the criticisms center-left Supreme Court justices have received after officiating at same-sex weddings. For some on the right, this is an automatic disqualifier when it comes to ruling on the constitutionality of marriage equality – these jurists, the argument goes, can’t be “neutral observers” because they know gay people, apparently like and respect gay people, and have been a part of weddings involving gay people.

But pure “neutrality” is a tricky thing to find. If a justice refuses to officiate at a same-sex wedding, is he or she better able to consider the constitutionality of marriage equality? What about if he or she officiated at an opposite-sex wedding? If a justice is outwardly hostile towards the LGBT community, is he or she suddenly better suited to hear the case?

To borrow an overused cliche, it’s hard to be neutral on a moving train.
Debates about race, bigotry, and justice are always multifaceted, but we all bring our own baggage onto the train with us. To assume there are some among us who have the privilege of serving as a “neutral observer” is a mistake.

Barack Obama

Who gets to be a 'neutral observer' on race?