A president has perhaps no more important role than to embody the contradictions of our national conversation: Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence while owning hundreds of slaves; Abraham Lincoln, who set out to hold the union together and ended by emancipating the slaves; Dwight Eisenhower, the warrior who warned us against the military-industrial complex; Barack Obama, who is black and white in a country where legally and demographically people are black or white. We have made much progress on the issues of race since Jefferson’s time, but the issue itself will not go away because we refuse to address it openly – until it rears its head, as it inevitably did again after Trayvon Martin’s murder. Race is implicit in so many of the issues with which the country wrestles: the immigration debate is about people of color; the bankruptcy of Detroit reflects the apartheid of our inner cities on which we have turned our backs; the growing disparity in wealth, in which whites own 20 times more than African-Americans, and aspiring blacks are urged to choose class over race, while impoverished whites are taught to identify with their race, not their economic condition.
The president cannot duck these issues because he is a target of them. And when he addresses them – as our national leader and a human being – as he did in 2008 in Philadelphia and last week at the White House, I remember, again, why his presidency is so important for our country.