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With A Black President, Harder To Discuss Race?


The Trayvon Martin case has brought discussions about race in America back to the front pages, the airwaves and dining tables across the country. In fact even the president weighed in, saying that if he had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. But our next guest says that since President Obama took office, the dialogue about race hasn't progressed. Reniqua Allen is a freelance journalist. She recently wrote a piece in the Washington Post, a first person essay called, "The First Black President Has Made It Harder To Talk About Race In America," and she joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us, Reniqua.

RENIQUA ALLEN: Good to be here Jacki, thank you.

LYDEN: Actually that wasn't the title of the essay, it was different than that. Tell me. Your piece?

ALLEN: So, my piece is really about how, you know, how Obama has really made these discussions harder for us. It's harder, I think, as a country to really have these honest discussions about race. It's not just because there is a first black president, but it's because Obama himself started these conversations, you know, when he was running as a candidate.

LYDEN: But you say in the piece, Reniqua, that the Obama presidency is post racial, "only in the sense that it gives us an excuse not to grapple with race anymore." Unquote. Why do you think that?

ALLEN: You know, I think for a lot of people – black, white and a lot of other groups - that, you know, Obama's win really symbolizes that we've, you know, quote/unquote "reached this kind of proverbial mountaintop." Obama's win symbolizes that, you know, or for a lot of people, I think that, you know, a lot of the obstacles that were faced in the 60s and, you know, and before that are no longer there, you know?

Obama is a visible sign of progress to many people. You know, he symbolizes the fact that anybody can do it. And so I think that it's hard for us, because of him. It's hard for us to really talk about it, because, you know, as an African-American, for me, I have people saying, you know, well, you know, Obama did it, why can't you? And on the other side of it, people are saying here's an example of an African-American that can do it, you know?

Whites aren't - we're not all racists, you know? We voted for Obama as well.

LYDEN: In fact, you start the story, you're out with some girlfriends and they are saying the only person for whom race is important is you. Your girlfriends are white, you're not. Why do you think this is a good time to talk about race and what do you think we should be talking about?

ALLEN: Man, well that, you know, it was in this, you know, that night out, actually, broke before the Martin incident really hit national headlines. And I think this is actually the perfect time to have those conversations, because I think that Obama has been president long enough, you know? For a lot of people we see he is not the miracle worker that, you know, that many people I think thought he was, you know, both from blacks, and whites, and Latinos and these other groups.

And but at the same time, you know, we've also seen, I think, an incredibly racially charged environment. I think this election season has already proven it, and I think now is really - especially with the Martin incident - now is such a great time to really talk about these issues. To really, you know - and they haven't gone away since Obama has become president. And as we see, this is just another reminder that we do need to talk about it.

Obama's presidency is a reminder that, you know, the post racial thing didn't quite work out like a lot of people thought it would. And so, I think this case is just another sign that, you know, things are still - we still have a lot to work on.

LYDEN: Well, actually, as you say in this piece, four years ago, the candidate Barack Obama gave a very widely noted speech about race, which you reference here. Is there something specifically that the president has done that you think has let you down in terms of the promise that he might lead the conversation about race?

ALLEN: You know, I think it's not so much what he's done, but what he hasn't done. I think he started off with the Henry Louis Gates and, you know - and the Beer Summit. Professor Gates was arrested in his own home a couple of months, you know, right after Obama was elected.

LYDEN: In Cambridge, Massachusetts.

ALLEN: In Cambridge, Massachusetts. Absolutely. And Obama got a lot of flack for critiquing the - and, again, from African-Americans and white officers together. Obama got a lot of critique for, you know, saying that the police officers acted stupidly in that case. And I think, since that moment, he's kind of shied away from really talking about racial incidents.

I understand, absolutely, why Obama, maybe even in that situation, didn't need to weigh in on the specific facts of the...

LYDEN: But let me ask you. Your piece was among the most emailed, end of the conversation, and how the first black president makes it harder to talk about race. The Atlantic pushed back on its website in saying that President Obama should not be in the lead to engage on this kind of dialog. What do you think about the reaction to the piece?

ALLEN: Right. So, like - so, I mean, what I was saying is and my bigger point is that Obama doesn't have to weigh on these specific incidences, but what he can do is talk about the broader context of the issue of race, the systematic inequalities and injustices that still are very much a part of our society, very much a part of some of the policies that are in D.C. So those are the kind of conversations that I want Obama to lead.

I spoke with that writer from The Atlantic and, you know, I understand. Some of the - you know, I understand some of his critique, but at the same time, Obama - I think he has a very powerful voice. We're not just talking about Obama being a black man able to talk about it.

You know, we're talking about Obama is the president and, you know, as a president, I think, you know, he wants to make sure that society is - you know, it's fair and equitable for everybody and I think - so it's part of his responsibility and, you know, part of his duty, you know, as a president - not just a president of black America - but to make sure that, you know, Americans are able to - you know, to live equitable lives and that the really systematic inequalities don't exist.

LYDEN: All right. Thank you very much. Reniqua Allen is a freelance journalist. Her piece in the Washington Post, "The First Black President Has Made It Harder to Talk About Race in America." And she joined us from our studios in New York City. Reniqua Allen, thanks again.

ALLEN: Thanks so much, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.