(TriceEdneyWire.com) – In 1903, author, orator and public intellectual W.E.B. Dubois stated, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”
Now 15 years into the 21st century, at the beginning of Black History Month, America is still struggling with the issue of race. This is demonstrated by marches, protests and signs heralding the words “Black Lives Matter”, among other slogans, in the wake of police killings of unarmed Black men. The problem is also born out through statistics showing gross racial disparities in nearly every social and economic category.
Because of the intensity of race as an issue and the momentum it has gained over the past several years, some Black leaders are calling for President Obama to not only push more policy to deal with it, but to speak more pointedly to the issue.
“The creation of the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing Reform is a positive first step toward dealing with the problems in our policing structure, but of course Congressional action is still needed to make long term systemic reform. I look forward to the President speaking more forcefully about the need to combat these issues in future speeches” said Barbara Arnwine, President/CEO of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Until we confront and address the systemic structures that maintain the old vestiges of racial segregation and de-humanization in this country we will not be able to realize a truly just and equal society.”
In written statements and interviews, Arnwine and other civil right leaders were reflecting on President Obama’s State of the Union Address Jan. 20. In that speech, the president mentioned the racial unrest that raged last year following the police killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson and the police chokehold killing of unarmed father of six Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.
“We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York,” Obama said. “But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift.”
But, some viewed the President’s comments as too sweeping and saying little to help America understand the pain and racial disparities in which the issues are steeped.
NAACP President Cornell William Brooks says, now that the State of the Union is over, the President should give a speech on race issues – period.
“The state of the union speech is by its definition, broad, thematic and kind of multi-categorical,” Brooks said. “Certainly we would like for the President to speak about these issues in a speech. So, in other words, a speech where you talk about the criminal justice challenges in New York, in Staten Island in Cleveland in Ferguson. We believe that that would be a great opportunity to lift up some of the criminal justice challenges facing our youth in particular and America in general. We’d like to see him do that. That would be a great opportunity to bring these themes together.”
President Obama has spoken a number of times on race issues in the heat of the moment. He did so after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” He also pleaded for calm following the acquittals of the officers in the Brown and Garner cases. And he has given responses to questions on race issues during interviews and press conferences.
But, since the demonstrations across America that blew up in to riots and protests he has not dedicated a speech to the significance of the issue and its bearing on America.
“We agree with President Obama that our communities, communities of color, need affordable housing, health care, child care, education, as well as jobs that pay a living wage and offer paid sick leave to their employees. And we praise the President for pushing back against the continued efforts to undermine our right to vote…,” states Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, the nation’s largest online civil rights organization. “However, at this critical moment in our nation’s history – with the epidemic of police violence on television sets and cell phone screens, billboards and t-shirts nationwide — substantive remarks affirming Black lives matter and the critical need for police reform were disappointingly absent” from the State of the Union.
Civil rights leaders also conclude the Presidents’ speaking up must be mixed with policies to enforce change. Says Arnwine: “Until we confront and address the systemic structures that maintain the old vestiges of racial segregation and de-humanization in this country we will not be able to realize a truly just and equal society.”