Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Obama on Holder...

(image at Newsday.com)

One Brainstorm reader, gh, says that "Obama threw Eric Holder under the bus a few days ago for race-baiting."

This weekend, The New York Times published an article that represented Obama's take on Holder's "nation of cowards" comment. Obama says that "if I had been advising my attorney general, we would have used different language."

Obama did concede that Americans are "oftentimes uncomfortable with talking about race" and "probably [need to] be more constructive in facing up to sort of the painful legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and discrimination."

Here's how the article ends:

Mr. Obama was asked whether he agreed with Mr. Holder. He hesitated for five seconds before responding.

“I’m not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions,” Mr. Obama said. “I think what solves racial tensions is fixing the economy, putting people to work, making sure that people have health care, ensuring that every kid is learning out there. I think if we do that, then we’ll probably have more fruitful conversations.”

Indeed, to read Obama's books carefully is to anticipate just such a response. Such a position served as one of the very organizing principles for his election campaign.

In the LIFE coffee-table book The American Journey of Barack Obama, published earlier this year, I describe Obama as a "racial optimist," someone with the "audacity" to "hope" that we can transcend race by listening carefully to one another and finding points of commonality. His early exploits in Chicago demonstrate his capacity to do just that. He intends to show Americans that we can believe in one another, to convince us that trusting across racial lines is well worth the risk.

But he does believe that dealing with health care, putting people to work, and improving our schools are the first orders of business. Does that imply that he considers America's racial issues epiphenomenal, mere byproducts of these more decidedly material realities? Is that a fair characterization? Is he right, or is there something sui generis about the logic of racial reasoning that makes it irreducible to these other issues (even as it clearly intersects with them)?

Moreover, does his take on how we should deal with race/racism imply that he has thrown Holder under the bus and derailed the new Attorney General's attempt to provoke more explicit cross-racial dialogues?